The Malaysian government has been condemned by human rights groups after 29 protesters, including opposition leaders and human rights activists, were arrested following a massive rally against the unpopular goods and services tax (GST) in Kuala Lumpur on Friday.
Among those arrested were former Malaysian Bar council president Ambiga Sreenevasan, Parti Sosialis Malaysia secretary-general S. Arutchelvan, lawmaker Hatta Ramli of the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia, Democratic Action Party national organising secretary Anthony Loke and Parti Keadilan Rakyat secretary-general Rafizi Ramli.
More than 10,000 protesters had gathered in the country's capital on Friday to call on Putrajaya to immediately abolish the tax scheme which has led to an increase in the cost of living and became a burden to lower-income groups.
The government introduced the 6 per cent GST on April 1, the lowest in the region, and promised that part of the revenue from the tax would be channelled back to the poor through increased cash handouts.
The police released Ms Ambiga, Mr Loke, Mr Hatta and Mr Arutchelvan yesterday.
The four are being investigated under Section 143 of the Penal Code for unlawful assembly that carries a maximum six-month jail term or a fine or both. Six minors who were detained were also released yesterday.
The rest, including Mr Rafizi, are still in remand.
The police said on Friday night that 29 protesters were arrested and that several smoke bombs were confiscated.
Apart from Section 143, those still in remand will also be investigated under Sections 427 and 448 of the Penal Code and Section 4 of the Corrosive and Explosive Substances and Offensive Weapons Act.
The police also posted 14 photos of alleged incidents of vandalism and throwing of smoke bombs on its official Facebook page.
Global group Human Rights Watch said the arrests have put into question the Malaysian government's commitment to democracy.
Its Asia division deputy director Phil Robertson said in a statement yesterday: "This wave of arrests should raise alarm bells among international friends of Malaysia about just how far the powers that be in Putrajaya are dragging the country off the path of democratic, rights-respecting governance."
He added: "Expressing views and holding a peaceful public march should not be considered a crime in Malaysia or anywhere else in the world."
Election reform group Bersih 2.0 was scathing in its criticism, stressing that the arrests would only cause further public uproar against the GST.
It said in its statement yesterday that the government "will only face greater public wrath if it chooses to persecute protesters in the May Day protest... rather than listening to the widespread anger of Malaysians against the goods and sales tax".
Lawyer Syahredzan Johan said the latest incident reflects the double standards practised by the authorities, pointing to a recent demonstration against a local church where no arrests were made.
"Which is more likely to threaten peace and harmony, if that is the standard being employed? A protest against tax, or a protest against a religious symbol?" he asked.
This article was first published on May 3, 2015.
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