KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Police broke up Malaysia's biggest street protest in nearly two years on 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."
Government authorities had warned they would not permit the protest, saying it could undermine public peace.
Human rights activists have held numerous smaller protests over the years against the security act, but Saturday's event received a boost after opposition parties urged their supporters to come out in force.
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.
Opposition activists "are only dreaming in the daytime, because the ISA will be not be abolished," the national news agency Bernama quoted Nazri as saying.
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 alleged links to militants and document forgery. Activists have long decried the act, saying it has been used in the past to jail hundreds of government critics and dampen dissent.
Restaurants and stores were shuttered on several streets ahead of the rally, the biggest in Kuala Lumpur since November 2007 when tens of thousands of ethnic minority Indians demanded racial equality.
Those arrested could be charged with illegal assembly, which is punishable by a year in prison and a fine.