Malaysia turned away an Australian senator who flew to the Southeast Asian country on Saturday to highlight his concerns about upcoming elections, calling him a security risk who had broken Malaysian law by attending an illegal street rally.
Nick Xenophon, an independent South Australia state senator, had planned to meet with Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, a Cabinet minister and electoral activists to discuss transparency issues for national elections that must be held by the end of June.
Immigration Director Gen. Alias Ahmad said in a government-issued statement that Xenophon was barred because he was at a banned Kuala Lumpur demonstration last year.
“Malaysia is a free and democratic country, but no one is above the law,” the statement said. “Authorities will take the appropriate action against any individual deemed to have violated national laws.”
Mr. Xenophon said the action “confirms our concerns about the situation in Malaysia.”
“Apparently I’m persona non grata. I’m said to be a security risk,” Mr. Xenophon told the AP by telephone from an airport holding room. “This is extraordinary.”
Mr. Xenophon visited Kuala Lumpur last April as a foreign observer at a rally where police used tear gas to disperse tens of thousands of Malaysians who demanded sweeping changes to electoral policies that they say are manipulated to favour Prime Minister Najib Razak’s long-ruling coalition.
Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said Mr. Xenophon’s detention “is a surprising and disappointing act from a country with which Australia routinely maintains strong diplomatic relations.”
Mr Anwar called Mr Xenophon’s detention “a gross abuse of power,” while Lim Chee Wee, president of the Malaysian Bar, which comprises more than 12,000 lawyers, said it was “shameful” and “absurd,” adding that authorities “owe an unreserved apology” to the senator.
Three other Australian politicians were scheduled to travel to Malaysia to join Mr. Xenophon for next week’s meetings. Senator John Williams, a member of the group, told Australia’s ABC News that they were cancelling the trip following Mr. Xenophon’s detention.
Malaysia’s government says the country’s electoral system is free and fair. Officials have promised to boost transparency in this year’s elections by allowing Malaysians living overseas to cast postal ballots, lengthening campaign periods and bolstering security to prevent voter fraud.
But opposition activists say authorities have not done enough to address concerns over discrepancies in voter registration rolls, vote-buying and the use of government-controlled news media to denounce the opposition.
The upcoming elections are expected to be a close fight between Najib’s National Front coalition, which has governed Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957, and Anwar’s three-party opposition alliance.
The National Front suffered its worst performance in 2008 elections, when it lost more than a third of the seats in Parliament amid public complaints about corruption and racial discrimination.