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Police break up opposition protest with tear gas

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February 19, 2001 


KULIM, Malaysia--(AP) - Police hurled tear gas canisters and sprayed chemically laced water Sunday on more than 250 anti-government demonstrators outside a Malaysian court where opposition leaders were facing charges.

Eight people were arrested during scuffles at the demonstration and officials from the National Justice Party which organized the rally said at least 12 people were injured by hits or kicks from police.

Hundreds of protesters gathered at the gates of the court building in Kulim town, 350 kilometers (217 miles) north of Kuala Lumpur, waving banners with slogans against Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and wearing badges which read: "Free Anwar."

The wife of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim founded the National Justice Party after he was fired by Mahathir in 1998 following disagreements about economic policy. Mahathir's former protege was later convicted of corruption and sodomy on charges he insists were part of a conspiracy to stem his ascent to power.

Protesters Sunday ignored police orders to disperse and shouted "Mahathir step down, Mahathir step down!" before riot officers moved in with batons and rattan canes.

College student Nusrat Mohammad, 21, was talking on a mobile phone to her father when police grabbed her. "Papa, papa, they have caught me," she cried as she was dragged toward a police truck.

"I'm a citizen of Malaysia. This is excessive treatment," Nusrat told The Associated Press. "I did not do anything wrong."

Nine Justice Party leaders faced Kulim Magistrate's Court Sunday for a preliminary hearing on charges of interfering with a by-election last year.

They are accused of illegally detaining busloads of pro-government supporters to prevent them from voting in the Nov. 29 by-election, in Mahathir's home state of Kedah and which his United Malays National Organization lost.

Hearing of the clashes outside, the Justice Party leaders disrupted the hearing by walking out of the courtroom. They agreed to return after the rally quietened. Magistrate Noor Hisham set down June 18-21 for the trial.

Emerging from the court, the nine, who are free on bail, led protesters in Muslim prayers before the crowd dispersed.

Sunday's protest was the third opposition rally in less than a week which was broken up by police.

On Saturday, police wielding canes and backed by water cannon trucks chased about 500 anti-Mahathir protesters through Kuala Lumpur streets. On Wednesday, police used tear gas and chemically-laced water to disperse about 5,000 people at a rally in Mahathir's parliamentary constituency.

Tian Chua, vice president of the Justice Party, described the police reaction to Sunday's protest as "excessive and brutal."

"There is probably an order from the highest level to obstruct any peaceful gathering here," Tian told The AP. "The government is afraid that the people's assemblies will regain momentum."

Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi condemned the protest.

"If they have any objections, there are ways," Abdullah was quoted as saying by the national news agency Bernama. "Staging street demonstrations is not the way to resolve problems."

Speaking on customary condition of anonymity, an officer at the demonstration said those arrested had been detained for illegal assembly. They were released later Sunday and told to return to the police station on Feb. 25 to learn if they would be charged.

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