Tuesday, July 12, 2011

KL to probe claims of police brutality at rally

A Bersih supporter being subdued by police during clashes in downtown Kuala Lumpur last Saturday. Police handling of the rally has come under fire from rights groups and the public, but the government has defended police actions. -- PHOTOS: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK, REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR: The government will investigate claims that police used excessive force against protesters during last Saturday's Bersih rally, as public outrage, fuelled by online photos and witness accounts, continues to grow.

Rights groups have joined in to criticise the police handling of the rally, which included firing tear gas and spraying strong jets of water at the crowds gathered in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. The police also arrested more than 1,600 people, including opposition politicians and activists.

Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein and Prime Minister Najib Razak dismissed the claims of police brutality, and insisted the strong police action prevented bloodshed and the loss of lives.

But Mr Hishammuddin said yesterday that police video footage of the protest would be reviewed, and also promised action would be taken against police officers found to have used excessive force.

But he warned that action would also be taken against those who made baseless allegations on the Internet or in local and foreign media.

'Our (police) operations room has recordings of everything that happened last Saturday... all the accusations and claims will be investigated with concrete proof,' he told reporters yesterday. 'The police have nothing to hide.'

The Attorney-General's Chambers is expected to press charges soon against those detained during the protest.

The public is keeping up the pressure on the government to take action, with news websites and blogs showing pictures and videos of police personnel beating, and some of them kicking, protesters last Saturday.

In one instance, photos on the Malaysiakini website showed water cannon trucks firing jets of water at fleeing protesters, who ran into a hospital compound to escape the sprays and tear gas.

Mr Mohamad Sabu, deputy president of the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), claimed a police truck rammed into his motorcycle when he arrived for the protest, injuring his right knee.

The Bar Council, which had 250 members observing the protests, denounced the police for using 'arbitrary, improper and disproportionate physical force'.

Datuk Seri Najib dismissed the charges on Sunday after a briefing with 6,000 Umno leaders and members.

'Police had used minimum force, and there was no actual physical contact with the demonstrators,' he told reporters. He also accused the opposition of hijacking the rally from its original aim of calling for electoral reforms, and using it to stir hatred against the government.

The Prime Minister, who has been widely expected to call a general election within a year, now has his hands full trying to contain the fallout from the rally.

Many people, including analysts, say his tough stance towards the Bersih rally has dented his Barisan Nasional government's popularity.

A Facebook fan page put up to demand Mr Najib's resignation garnered more than 100,000 'likes' in less than 24 hours.

The opposition-backed rally, which drew tens of thousands of people, was declared an illegal assembly, and the authorities detained many of its supporters in the run-up to the event.

The organiser, Bersih, is a loose grouping of 62 non-governmental organisations that is pushing for electoral reforms. It wants its demands to be met before the next general election. The demands include equal access to all media, the strengthening of public institutions such as the judiciary and a call to stop corruption and dirty politics.

An independent new media consultant, Mr Oon Yeoh, said recent events showed that even politically neutral Malaysians were now not afraid to express their dissatisfaction with the government.

'It takes a lot more for a person to stand up and be counted as one of those calling for the Prime Minister's resignation than to say I like the PM... It is something new, this lack of fear,' he told The Straits Times. 'If his (Mr Najib's) social media advisers are savvy, they would advise him about the significance of this development.'

In contrast to online uproar over alleged police brutality, at least three Facebook pages are honouring 65-year-old 'Aunty' Annie Ooi Siew Lan.

The retired government teacher has become a minor celebrity since pictures of her braving police tear gas and water cannon surfaced on the Internet.

Madam Ooi, whom some dubbed Malaysia's 'Lady of Liberty' or 'Aunty Bersih', was reported to have said: 'Why do we have to feel so scared (and threatened) in our own homeland and by our own countrymen?'

By Lester Kong, Malaysia Correspondent