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Asia

Thousands in Malaysia take part in rally against prime minister

Thousands of protesters have rallied in Malaysia's capital seeking the premier's resignation over a financial scandal. Prime Minister Najib Razak is accused of diverting funds to his private bank account.

Thousands of yellow-clad anti-government protesters marched in downtown Kuala Lumpur Saturday demanding the resignation of the country's leader over a multibillion-dollar misappropriation scandal. "We want to see Malaysia more developed and not robbed of billions of ringgit [Malaysia's currency]," said Wan Aishah Wan Ariffin, an opposition supporter.

Police barricaded key roads and put water-cannon trucks on standby, but it did not stop protesters. Some were chanting "Save Democracy" and "Bersih, Bersih," the name of the electoral reform group that organized the rally. The name means "clean" in the Malay language.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is attending an Asia-Pacific summit in Peru, has maintained a tight grip on power since graft allegations emerged two years ago involving the indebted 1MDB state fund that he founded. He claimed the protests are a stunt by the opposition to force the prime minister out of power. "Their movement is deceitful. It is clear that these street protests are in fact the opposition disguised as an independent NGO working to unseat a democratically elected government," the leader told reporters in Lima. 

Malaysian police raided an opposition office on Friday and detained more than a dozen Bersih activists, claiming their "activities [were] detrimental to parliamentary democracy."

Rights group decry Bersih crackdown

Amnesty International slammed the arrests and called for the immediate release of the 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," Amnesty said in a statement.

1MDB is the focus of investigations in the US and other countries. The scandal is centered on investigations into the 1MDB fund being suspected of global embezzlement and a 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 US Justice Department said that at least $3.5 billion (3.3 billion euros) 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 US. A separate, small pro-government rally was held a short distance away from Saturday's protest march, and there are fears of clashes between Bersih and the pro-Najib Red Shirts group. Both rallies have been declared unlawful by police.

jar/jlw (Reuters, AP)