Riot police charged demonstrators with batons and fired tear gas today to disperse thousands of people marching in Malaysia's largest city to protest a law that allows indefinite detention without trial.
People began massing at Kuala Lumpur's main mosque, a shopping mall and a train station this morning in defiance of government warnings that police would crack down on demonstrators, who are pushing leaders to scrap the Internal Security Act, which allows the imprisonment of people regarded as security threats. Police said many thousands had taken to the streets, with some reports putting the count as high as 20,000.
Police fired tear gas and chemical-laced water to disperse the crowds shortly after they began marching toward the national palace. The protesters - who chanted "Reformasi," the opposition's slogan for political change - had planned to submit a petition to the country's king, the constitutional monarch, to denounce the security act.
Witnesses said police wielding batons charged the protesters and scuffled with them.
"The police are really brutal," opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim told reporters at the protest. "This clearly shows (the government's) intolerance to any dissent... We gather here today to fight a cruel law."
Before the march started, Kuala Lumpur Police Chief Muhammad Sabtu Osman said 150 people - identified as protesters because they were wearing opposition T-shirts and headbands - had been detained to prevent them from taking part. Opposition activists estimated about 200 people were detained during the protest.
Government authorities had warned they would not allow the protest, saying it could undermine public peace.
Authorities set up roadblocks across Kuala Lumpur to deter the demonstrators from trying to reach the city centre, sparking massive traffic crawls. Hundreds of riot police backed by trucks mounted with water cannons stood outside train station and shopping mall where the demonstrators had arranged to gather.
Restaurants and stores were shuttered on several streets ahead of the rally - the biggest street protest in Kuala Lumpur since a November 2007 when tens of thousands of minority ethnic Indians demanded racial equality.
The Star newspaper and Malaysiakini news website reported a total of 20,000 protesters in three different areas.
Prime Minister Najib Razak has promised to consider amending the security act, though government officials have repeatedly said it is necessary to safeguard national security, and on Friday he urged people not to join the protest.
Human rights groups estimate at least 17 people are being held under the act, mainly for alleged links to militants and document forgery.
Activists have long decried the decades-old act, instituted during the British colonial era, saying it is sometimes used to jail government critics and dampen dissent.
Human rights activists have held numerous smaller rallies over the years to protest the security act, but today's protest received a boost after opposition parties urged their supporters to come out in force.