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Sunday, September 27, 1998 Published at 20:30 GMT 21:30 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Malaysian protesters defy rally ban

Anwar's wife said her husband would be proud

About 20,000 Malaysians have defied a ban on public gatherings to attend a rally calling for political reform following the arrest of sacked deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim.

[ image: Mahathir accused of acting like God]
Mahathir accused of acting like God
The gathering also marked the launch of a ''Democracy Coalition'' of some 18 political parties and religious and human rights groups.

The move follows a string of demonstrations in the capital Kuala Lumpur, some of which have been broken up by riot police using water cannon and CS gas.

Syed Husin Ali, chairman of the Malaysian People's Party, urged people to unite to bring down Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Mr Ali, one of the coalition's founders, said Dr Mahathir had come to think he was God because so much power was concentrated in his hands.

The BBC's David Willis: The coalition is fighting ''the rape of democracy''
It was the biggest political meeting since a rally last Sunday in central Kuala Lumpur at which Mr Anwar called for Dr Mahathir to step down.

Mr Anwar was arrested hours afterwards under the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows indefinite detention without trial.

After his sacking on September 2, Mr Anwar held rallies around the country calling for political reform and an end to nepotism and cronyism.

Allegations against him include sodomy and treason.

Mr Anwar's wife said the malicious destruction of her husband's character would be a black mark in the nation's history if it went unchallenged.

Dr Wan Azizah Ismail did not attend the gathering and has been warned by the police not to deliver any public talks.

[ image: Water cannon used in previous protests]
Water cannon used in previous protests
But in a speech read out at the rally she said her husband's detention was against the United Nations charter on human rights and Islamic doctrines.

"We do not seek anything other than that brother Anwar be produced in court and given a fair trial under the ordinary laws of the land," she added.

Mr Anwar is one of about a dozen people arrested under the ISA during the recent unrest.

Dr Wan Azizah was confident her husband was aware of what was happening outside the confines of his cell. She added: "He will surely be very proud.''

Organisers distributed leaflets which called for an independent judiciary, police and media and demanded the amendment of laws which encroach on freedoms.

Although authorities have banned all public meetings, police did not disrupt the rally, held at the local headquarters of the Islamic fundamentalist opposition Parti Islam Se-Malaysia.

Police barred official coalition launch

The meeting took place after the official launch of the new coalition was cancelled when police stopped the booking at the hotel where it was to be held.

[ image: Anwar accused of sodomy]
Anwar accused of sodomy
The leaders of the Coalition for People's Democracy, described the movement as a social grouping set up to fight ''the rape of democracy''.

Although there are no immediate plans to launch a direct challenge to the government, one of the leaders said the movement could develop into a single political force.

On Friday, Dr Mahathir said Mr Anwar would be brought to court only when the protests stopped.

Lawyers for Mr Anwar say they still do not know what charges he is likely to face.

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