KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian police arrested several opposition politicians and activists on Thursday, launching a crackdown on dissent three weeks after an election exposed deep divisions in the country and sparked a series of opposition protest rallies.
Police also raided the offices of opposition newspapers and seized thousands of copies of their publications, according to online media reports.
The arrests of at least one member of parliament and the charging of a student activist under the country’s tough Sedition Act signal a hardening stance by the government after the disputed May 5 election.
The long-ruling Barisan Nasional lost the popular vote for the first time in 44 years in its worst electoral performance, but still won 60 percent of parliamentary seats.
Conservatives in the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) have urged Prime Minister Najib Razak to take a firm line against “dissent” as opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim staged a series of big rallies to protest the result.
Kuala Lumpur police chief Mohamed Salleh confirmed to Reuters that opposition member of parliament Tian Chua, who is vice president of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance), and pro-opposition activists Haris Ibrahim and Tamrin Ghafar, had been arrested for offences under the Sedition Act.
He would not say if there would be further arrests.
Tian Chua said on his Twitter page that he had been picked up by police as he was about to board a flight at Kuala Lumpur’s budget air terminal.
Earlier, 24-year-old activist Adam Adli was charged under the Sedition Act, which human rights group Amnesty International said this week should be abolished as it posed a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression.
Adli was charged for a speech he made at a forum on May 13. Other people who had attended that forum were also arrested on Thursday, online media sites reported.
Adli was reported as saying at the forum that people should not wait another five years to “overthrow” the government.
His lawyer, N. Surendran, told Reuters that his client had pleaded not guilty because his statements had not been seditious and that the charges were unconstitutional.
Under the Sedition Act, it is a criminal offence to make statements with “seditious tendency”. The law, which Najib had promised last year to repeal, has been implemented over the years to repress political dissent.
Adli could be imprisoned for up to three years if found guilty.
Opposition rallies to protest alleged fraud in the polls, led by former deputy prime minister Anwar, have drawn tens of thousands of supporters around the country. More protests were expected in the coming days, including one in Kuala Lumpur this weekend.
Additional reporting by Niluksi Koswanage; Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Robert Birsel