Malaysian opposition activists held after May Day protest

KUALA LUMPUR - More than two dozen protesters including a leading human rights activist and opposition politicians were detained overnight in Malaysia in what one lawyer said Saturday 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 Ambiga was 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 sought to extend Ambiga's detention on Saturday.

However, police efforts to obtain a remand order was rejected by a magistrate and she was released in the afternoon.

Michelle Yesudas, a lawyer who is representing 29 protestors arrested, said that even though Ambiga was released the police may continue investigating her.

Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch, had called Ambiga's 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.

They were also released Saturday after police failed to obtain a remand order from a magistrate, said Yesudas.

Yesudas added that 23 protestors, mostly young adults, were expected to be released on Monday while six who are below the age of 18 were to be released by end Saturday.

Meanwhile, local media reported that police had detained opposition People's Justice Party secretary-general Rafizi Ramlie on Saturday.

"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," Robertson said in a statement.

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".