Malaysian opposition activists held after May Day protest

A Malaysian woman holding a placard reading "we will rise" in front of the Petronas Towers during a May Day protest against the GST in Kuala Lumpur on May 1, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
A Malaysian woman holding a placard reading "we will rise" in front of the Petronas Towers during a May Day protest against the GST in Kuala Lumpur on May 1, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - More than two dozen protesters, including a leading human rights activist and opposition lawmakers, have been detained in Malaysia in what one lawyer said was an attempt to silence government critics.

The demonstrators were arrested late Friday following a May Day rally that drew thousands to the streets of Kuala Lumpur, their lawyers said.

Among those arrested was Ambiga Sreenevasan, a widely respected human rights activist and former president of Malaysia's Bar Council who campaigns for democratic and electoral reforms.

Her lawyer N. Surendran said on Saturday that Ambiga was being detained for sedition and for unlawful assembly with an intention to overthrow the government.

"This is ridiculous," he told AFP. "These arrests are scare tactics by the police to deter people from opposing the government."

He added that police would seek to extend Ambiga's detention on Saturday.

Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch, called her arrest "absolutely outrageous" and added, "speaking and attending a rally is not a crime, let her go unconditionally".

Among other prominent figures arrested were the chief of the Socialist Party of Malaysia and a senior lawmaker from the opposition Democratic Action Party.

Friday's protest saw thousands of Malaysians taking to the streets despite sweltering tropical heat, mostly to demand an end to a recently implemented goods and services tax.

Malaysia has seen a wave of arrests of government critics under the Sedition Act, although few have actually been jailed.

Analysts view the blitz as a bid by the long-ruling government to silence adversaries as it loses ground to the reform-minded opposition.

Tightening the screws, Prime Minister Najib Razak's government recently pushed through even tougher sedition penalties and an anti-terrorism bill that allows detention without judicial review.

Amnesty International said the moves were turning Malaysia into a "human rights black hole".