KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysian police arrested three leading opposition politicians in a bid to thwart a protest march on Saturday demanding the release of jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, his party said.
The protest went ahead anyway, however, with several hundred people taking to the streets of the capital Kuala Lumpur to denounce the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak.
The arrests are the latest in an growing tally of sedition charges levelled at government opponents amid anger over Anwar's jailing last month on a sodomy charge.
"This is an abuse of the sedition law, and an abuse of everything. The government is acting maliciously," said Tian Chua, a member of parliament and vice president of Anwar's People's Justice Party, shortly before he was arrested on Saturday.
Police had banned the rally and said participants faced arrest.
Demonstrators staged a short march through the city towards its convention centre, where participants had vowed to disrupt wedding celebrations for Najib's daughter.
Scores of police blocked them from the area, and they later dispersed. There were no arrests or violent incidents reported.
Washington has been among the international critics of Anwar's conviction and the crackdown on dissent, saying both raised rule-of-law concerns.
Anwar denies the charge that he sodomised a former male aide in 2008, saying it was fabricated by Malaysia's long-ruling government to halt a run of opposition electoral gains.
Najib promised in 2011 to end the authoritarian tactics of his ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
But after that failed to win back ebbing voter support in 2013 polls, his government has launched a tightening clampdown in which dozens of opponents were hauled up on sedition or other charges over the past year.
Anwar's daughter Nurul Izzah, a member of parliament and one of those charged recently with sedition, warned Friday that Malaysia was sliding toward becoming a "police state".
Najib last week defended his policies, saying dissent cannot be allowed to jeopardise stability.
But Amnesty International last Monday noted "troubling signs of an escalating crackdown" on civil liberties.
"The space for dissent and debate in Malaysia is rapidly shrinking, under the guise of punishing 'sedition' or maintaining public order," it said in a statement.
Besides Tian Chua, police on Saturday also arrested Mohamad Sabu, deputy president of the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).
Rafizi Ramli, a vice president of Anwar's party, was arrested on Friday.
A police official confirmed Rafizi's arrest but declined comment on the others.
It was not clear what the men, who were still in custody later Saturday, would be charged with.