KUALA LUMPUR - One of Malaysia's top opposition leaders said he was blocked Friday from entering the state of Sarawak and accused the ruling coalition of illegally turning away government opponents ahead of a weekend election.
Azmin Ali, vice-president of the People's Justice Party, issued a statement saying he was barred entry to the state on Borneo island after flying into its capital Kuching, and ordered back to mainland Malaysia.
The opposition and civil-society leaders say a string of politicians and activists have been barred from Sarawak, Malaysia's largest state by area, in the run-up to Saturday's state assembly election, calling it a violation of political rights.
"This widespread barring of opposition leaders from entering Sarawak is... a brazen violation of the law, utterly shameful and a manifestation of the reckless abuse of power," said Azmin, who also is the chief minister of the state of Selangor, Malaysia's richest and most developed state.
The refusals may reflect jitters within the long-ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition over the election.
The BN is expected to retain firm control of Sarawak but the contest is being closely watched for signs that a corruption scandal swirling around Prime Minister Najib Razak is eroding coalition support with national elections looming by mid-2018.
Malaysia is divided between a portion on the Asian mainland, and another on huge Borneo island comprising the states of Sarawak and Sabah.
The two ruling coalition-controlled Borneo states enjoy a degree of autonomy stemming from the terms under which they joined Malaysia in the 1960s, including controls on entry from the country's mainland.
The opposition says the controls - meant to restrict unwanted migration - are abused to keep the opposition from gaining a firm foothold.
Sarawak Chief Minister Adenan Satem has defended the refusals, denying they were aimed at BN opponents and saying they applied to all people who posed a threat to the state's "harmony".
Najib's coalition has been shaken by allegations that billions of dollars were plundered from a state-owned investment fund he founded in 2009.
The allegations include the revelation that Najib personally received at least US$681 million (S$925 million) into his own bank accounts in 2013.
Najib and the state company, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), steadfastly deny that his money was syphoned from 1MDB.
Under decades of BN rule, Sarawak has remained one of Malaysia's most underdeveloped states despite rich energy, timber and hydropower resources.