- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 2, 2009

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia | Police broke up Malaysia’s biggest street protest in nearly two years Saturday, firing tear gas and chemical-laced water at thousands of opposition supporters demanding an end to a law that allows detention without trial.

Witnesses estimated as many as 20,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur in defiance of government warnings for people to shun the rally against the Internal Security Act, which allows the indefinite imprisonment of people regarded as security threats.

The clampdown on the protest could damage support for Prime Minister Najib Razak, who took power in April and has been battling efforts by opposition parties to portray him as a leader who disregards public opinion on issues such as human rights and freedom of expression.

Kuala Lumpur police Chief Muhammad Sabtu Osman said authorities arrested 438 people after about six hours of mayhem in which riot police wielding batons chased protesters down the city’s streets, scuffled with them and dragged many into detention trucks.

The protesters, some wearing opposition T-shirts and headbands, began massing at Kuala Lumpur’s main mosque, a shopping mall and a train station Saturday morning.

Police repeatedly fired volleys of tear gas and water laced with stinging chemicals to disperse the crowds after they began marching toward the national palace. The protesters - who chanted “Reformasi,” the opposition’s slogan for political change - wanted to submit a petition to the country’s constitutional monarch denouncing the security act.

“The police are really brutal,” opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim told reporters at the protest. “This clearly shows Najib’s intolerance to any dissent. … We gather here today to fight a cruel law.”

Nazri Aziz, the Cabinet minister in charge of legal affairs, insisted the government would not bow to the protesters’ demands, stressing that the security act was vital to safeguard national security.

Mr. Najib reiterated Saturday that the government would only consider technical amendments to the decades-old security act, which was instituted during the British colonial era.

Human rights groups say at least 17 people are being held under the act, mainly for purported links to militants and document forgery.

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