Malaysian reform group raided ahead of rally, 2 held

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysian police raided the office of electoral reform group Bersih on Friday and detained two officials on the eve of a street rally by the group seeking Prime Minister Najib Razak’s resignation over a financial scandal.

The group, which is supported by many civic organizations and opposition parties, has vowed to proceed with Saturday’s rally in Kuala Lumpur despite a police ban and fears of clashes with a pro-government group.

Bersih said on Twitter that its chairwoman Maria Chin and another official, Mandeep Singh, were taken by police. It said police also confiscated 10 laptop computers, payrolls and bank statements.

“Despite the authorities’ desperate measures to stop us, (the rally) will go on. See you on the streets tomorrow!” the group tweeted.

Lawyer Melissa Sasidaran said Chin was being held for “activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy” and Singh for alleged rioting. She said a student leader and three politicians had also been detained.

Police officials could not be reached for comment.

Najib has kept an iron grip since graft allegations emerged two years ago involving the indebted 1MDB state fund that he founded. 1MDB is at the center of investigations in the U.S. and several other countries.

A rally that Bersih organized in August 2015 also demanding Najib’s resignation brought together 50,000 people, according to police estimates. Bersih said the number was much higher.

Najib, who has denied any wrongdoing, has said he won’t be cowed by the rallies.

In a statement on his Facebook page and blog, Najib called Bersih “deceitful” and said it has become a tool for opposition parties to unseat a democratically elected government.

A ruling party politician, Jamal Mohamad Yunos, plans to lead a counter rally in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, prompting fears of a clash between his group, dubbed the “Red Shirts,” and Bersih’s “Yellow Shirt” supporters.

Police have banned both rallies and the government has warned that police will act against any participants.

The human rights group Amnesty International called for the immediate release of the Bersih activists, describing them as prisoners of conscience.

“These arrests are the latest in a series of crude and heavy-handed attempts to intimidate Malaysian civil society activists and other human rights defenders,” the group’s deputy director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Josef Benedict, said in a statement.

The investigations into 1MDB fund are centered on allegations of a global embezzlement and money-laundering scheme. Najib started the fund shortly after taking office in 2009 to promote economic development projects, but the fund accumulated billions in debt over the years.

The U.S. Justice Department said that at least $3.5 billion had been stolen from 1MDB by people close to Najib and initiated action in July to seize $1.3 billion it said was taken from the fund to buy assets in the U.S.

The U.S. government complaints also said that more than $700 million had landed in the accounts of “Malaysian Official 1.” They did not name the official, but appear to be referring to Najib.

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