At least 80 ethnic Indians were charged in court on Wednesday for taking part in a massive, banned rally to demand equal rights for minority Indians in the Muslim-majority country.
The Indians, who were charged in at least five different courts, pleaded not guilty to “participating in an illegal assembly” on Sunday by about 10,000 people, said a defense lawyer, Saha Deva A. Arunasalam. Many were freed on bail.
Some were also charged with refusing to disperse and trying to injure police officers, said Arunasalam and his colleague, Joshua Sambantha. If convicted, they could be jailed for between six months and five years, the lawyers said.
The 80 people were arrested during the unprecedented demonstration in downtown Kuala Lumpur which stunned the normally peaceful nation. The protests lasted about seven hours despite the repeated firing of tear gas and water cannons by police. “People won’t be deterred. They want to put their foot down,” said P. Uthayakumar, one of the organisers of the rally. “To me, it is racially motivated. The public will have more hatred for the government.”
Ethnic Indians, mostly descendants of 19th century plantation workers brought to Malaysia from southern India by British colonial officials, say they face discrimination because of an affirmative action policy which favors Malay Muslims in jobs, education, business and government contracts.
Malays form about 60 per cent of Malaysia’s 27 million people and control politics and the government. Indians comprise 8 percent and are the second biggest minority after Chinese, who make up a quarter of the population.
Most Indians earn low incomes and work in menial jobs. Indians also complain that Malaysia's Muslim-dominated government is becoming increasingly Islamic and is denying them their religious rights, citing the recent demolition of several Hindu temples.
The government denies that discrimination exists, and has accused the rally organisers of trying to create racial animosity. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi warned Tuesday that he might enforce a security law that allows indefinite dete.