Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, on Saturday to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is accused of taking $1 billion from a government investment fund.
The protesters, wearing the yellow T-shirts of Malaysia’s clean government movement, known as Bersih, converged on the city center to hear their leaders call for Mr. Najib’s ouster. Among the speakers was former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, 91, who once chose Mr. Najib as prime minister but now criticizes his former protégé’s government as corrupt.
The authorities had attempted to thwart the daylong, peaceful demonstration by arresting at least eight protest leaders on Friday, including Bersih’s chairwoman, Maria Chin Abdullah. She is being held under the country’s strict Security Offenses Act.
Human rights advocates criticized the arrests, which they said were aimed at suppressing turnout for the rally.
“Security legislation should not be used against peaceful demonstrators,” said Laurent Meillan, acting regional representative of the UN Human Rights Office in Southeast Asia. “We call for the immediate and unconditional release of Maria Chin Abdullah and other activists.”
This was the fifth year that Bersih, whose name means “clean” in Malay, had staged a protest calling for an end to corruption in government. Bersih also organized smaller protests calling for Mr. Najib’s resignation in cities around the world.
Mr. Najib, who has denied taking money from the government investment fund for personal use, has kept a grip on power despite the scandal by blocking investigations, firing critics and arresting opponents.
The fund, 1 Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, was established and overseen by Mr. Najib. The U.S. Justice Department, which is seeking to recover assets stolen from the fund, has said that $731 million from it was deposited in the prime minister’s personal bank account. About $3 billion is missing from the fund.
Mr. Najib criticized the Bersih coalition for trying to bring down his government, which he says was fairly and democratically elected. While Malaysia holds elections, its leaders have long been chosen first by the governing United Malays National Organization, which has been in power continuously since Malaysia gained independence from Britain in 1957.
Sri Azalina Othman Said, a minister in Mr. Najib’s government, issued a statement calling the protest leaders “a motley crew of former enemies driven by self-interest, not the greater good of society.”