KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysian police, backed by helicopters, sealed off the country's independence square on Friday to prevent a mass rally by an opposition-backed reform group campaigning for free and fair elections.
The group, Bersih, has vowed to defy a police ban on the gathering and bring in tens of thousands of people in the streets of the capital on Saturday, raising fears of violence.
Two helicopters hovered near the square in Kuala Lumpur where protesters plan to stage a sit-in and where Malaysia first raised its national flag in 1957 to mark independence from Britain.
"If the authorities come down hard on us with violence, it will go to show the world how this country is run by the Najib administration," the protest organising committee member Wong Chin Huat said.
Malaysia's parliament approved a series of electoral reform measures this month, but activists say these do not address the main issue of electoral fraud which they allege has kept the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition in power since independence.
Elections are due in April 2013, but Prime Minister Najib Razak is widely expected to advance the polls, possibly as early as June.
Bersih has emerged as a key pressure group against Najib who took office in 2009 and pledged political and economic reform in a bid to reverse some of the ruling coalition's 2008 election losses.
"A larger turnout for Bersih will see Najib make some modifications in his election strategy," Ibrahim Suffian, a director at research firm Merdeka Center.
More than 10,000 people attended a similar rally called by Barsih last year, prompting Najib to establish a parliament committee to recommend electoral reforms.