KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Tens of thousands of yellow-shirt protesters rallied Saturday in Kuala Lumpur seeking Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s resignation over a financial scandal, undeterred by a police ban and the arrest of more than a dozen activists.
Protesters marched in downtown Kuala Lumpur and later moved to the Petronas Twin Towers after failing to enter Independent Square, the city’s main protest venue, which was locked down by police with water-cannon trucks on standby.
Some chanted “Save Democracy” and “Bersih, Bersih” — the name of the electoral reform group that organized the rally. The name means “clean” in the Malay language.
Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has been spearheading calls for Najib’s resignation, joined the rally, adding momentum to the demonstration.
“Everybody feels concerned about the kind of government we have now,” said Mahathir, wearing a yellow Bersih shirt. “We no longer live under democracy, but a kleptocracy — a nation ruled by thieves.”
The rally ended peacefully after a downpour.
Najib, who is attending an Asia-Pacific summit in Lima, Peru, has kept an iron grip since corruption allegations emerged two years ago involving the indebted 1MDB state fund that he founded. 1MDB is at the center of investigations in the U.S. and several other countries.
Najib, who has denied any wrongdoing, has called Bersih “deceitful” and said the group has become a tool for opposition parties to unseat a democratically elected government.
“We want to see Malaysia more developed and not robbed of billions of ringgit,” singer Wan Aishah Wan Ariffin, an opposition supporter, said at the rally.
The protest marked the fifth rally organized by Bersih, which also held similar demonstrations concurrently in two Malaysian cities on Borneo island.
The crowd appeared smaller than the last Bersih rally in August 2015, also demanding Najib to step down. Police didn’t give an estimate, but independent online news portal Malaysiakini put the crowd Saturday at more than 40,000.
Last year, police said 50,000 people attended the Bersih rally, but Bersih said there were at least 300,000.
Police on Friday raided the Bersih office and detained the group’s chairwoman, Maria Chin, for investigation into “activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy.”
More than a dozen other people, mostly politicians and activists, were also detained on Friday and Saturday to prevent rioting, police said.
Those detained included ruling party politician Jamal Mohamad Yunos, whose supporters trooped to downtown to counter the Bersih rally. Police banned the rallies by Bersih’s yellow-shirt supporters and Jamal’s red-shirt group.
Lawyer Eric Paulsen tweeted that Chin was formally detained Saturday under a security law meant to be used against terrorists and can be held for a further 28 days. The other activists were remanded for several days in police custody.
Amnesty International slammed the crackdown and called for the immediate release of the Bersih activists, describing them as prisoners of conscience. “These arrests are the latest in a series of crude and heavy-handed attempts to intimidate Malaysian civil society activists and other human rights defenders,” Amnesty said in a statement.
The investigations into 1MDB fund are centered on allegations of a global embezzlement and money-laundering scheme. Najib started the fund shortly after taking office in 2009 to promote economic development projects, but the fund accumulated billions in debt over the years.
The U.S. Justice Department said that at least $3.5 billion had been stolen from 1MDB by people close to Najib and initiated action in July to seize $1.3 billion it said was taken from the fund to buy assets in the U.S.
The U.S. government complaints also said that more than $700 million had landed in the accounts of “Malaysian Official 1.” They did not name the official, but appear to be referring to Najib. Support for Najib’s National Front has eroded in the last two general elections. It won in 2013, but lost the popular vote for the first time to an opposition alliance.
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