Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — Police officers arrested almost 1,700 people and fired tear gas at protesters here in Malaysia’s capital on Saturday in an attempt to prevent an afternoon rally by advocates of an overhaul of elections.
Ahmad Yusni/European Pressphoto Agency
A Malaysian protester felt the effects of tear gas in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday.
Vincent Thian/Associated Press
Police fired tear gas on demonstrators gather for a rally in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday.
Lai Seng Sin/Associated Press
Demonstrators fled tear gas fired by police Saturday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Demonstrators were seen scattering as the police fired tear gas on Saturday afternoon. In one late-afternoon skirmish, the police volleyed tear gas at thousands of protesters near the city’s Central Market. The Associated Press reported that the police also used chemical-laced water to disperse some demonstrators.
Roads leading into Kuala Lumpur, as well as some streets in the city, remained closed late in the afternoon as helicopters hovered over the city center.
The confrontation was the culmination of weeks of tension, as activists have called on Prime Minister Najib Razak to change the way elections are conducted. The next vote must be held by mid-2013, but there is speculation it could be called as early as this year.
The demonstration on Saturday was organized by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, also known as Bersih, or “clean” in Malay. The coalition is made up of 62 nongovernmental organizations.
Key leaders of the Bersih movement, most of them dressed in the group’s distinctive yellow T-shirts, and some opposition party leaders were arrested after they tried to walk from the Kuala Lumpur Central Station to Merdeka Stadium, where they had planned to hold a rally.
After forcing their way past security and into the city’s main train station, the Bersih leaders tried to leave from the other side of the station, where they were met by riot police officers who fired tear gas.
The opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and one of his bodyguards were injured as they tried to flee and were being treated in a hospital on Saturday afternoon, said Latheefa Koya, chief of the opposition People’s Justice Party’s legal bureau.
Speaking at a news conference before she was arrested on Saturday, Ambiga Sreenevasan, chairwoman of Bersih, said the arrests and the use of tear gas had “stirred a sense of outrage against the exhibition of raw power by our government.”
“What is the necessity for this show of might against right? No matter what, right will always prevail,” she said. Ms. Ambiga said she had been released about 6:30 p.m.
Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy and a democracy with regular national elections, but Bersih organizers say that elections are vulnerable to manipulation.
They have issued a list of eight demands, including marking voters with indelible ink to prevent them from casting ballots more than once, purging electoral rolls of “phantom voters” and ensuring that opposition parties have equal access to the mainstream news media. The group is also calling for a royal commission to investigate how elections are conducted.
Last Saturday, the government declared Bersih illegal because it had not registered as an organization and was causing unrest among the public. Bersih countered that it was not a new organization, but rather an alliance of existing groups.
Mr. Najib had said the coalition could hold the rally if it agreed to meet in a stadium, rather than on the streets as first planned. Bersih organizers agreed to the terms, but the authorities then said that Bersih could not proceed without a police permit, which normally would not be granted to a group that has been declared illegal. The government had said that Bersih could hold a rally at a stadium outside the city, but the group’s leaders insisted that it be held at Merdeka Stadium.
Bersih leaders also accused the prime minister of having “reneged” on his offer to provide a stadium for their rally.
On Saturday, Mr. Najib described the protest as “an illegal rally organized by a section of our community,” according to a report by the national news agency Bernama.
“If there are people who want to hold the illegal rally, there are even more who are against their plan to hold the illegal gathering,” Bernama quoted Mr. Najib as saying.
Ong Kian Ming, a political analyst at UCSI University in Kuala Lumpur, said the police had prevented demonstrators from gathering at the stadium.
“I think the police lost more credibility than the protesters,” he said, adding that there had been no reports of demonstrators attacking the police or damaging property. “I think it would be hard for the police to justify why they needed such a massive presence.”
Before Saturday, 225 people had been arrested in connection with the Bersih movement under various laws, including the Sedition Act and Emergency Ordinance, which allows for detention without trial. On Thursday, the police said six people remained in custody. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other rights groups condemned the arrests and called on the government to stop harassing people associated with Bersih.
“This brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters is undermining Malaysia’s claim to be a moderate democracy. Mr. Najib’s government has chosen the path of repression, not reform,” Amnesty International said in a statement on Saturday.
The protest on Saturday was one of the biggest in recent years in Malaysia. A street rally calling for similar election changes in 2007 was credited with helping the opposition make historic gains in the 2008 elections.