Twenty-six ethnic Indians were charged Tuesday with the attempted murder of a policeman during last month's anti-discrimination protests, their lawyer and officials said.
"Twenty-six Indians were charged in court today for attempted murder of an individual on November 24 during a protest in Batu Caves," their lawyer N. Ravi told AFP, adding that they had pleaded not guilty.
Attorney-General Abdul Gani Patail said the alleged victim was a policeman who received stitches to his head after protesters threw iron pipes and bricks, and that if convicted, the accused faced up to 20 years in jail.
"They threw bricks at his head. Do you think it will not cause death?" he told AFP.
The protest at Batu Caves, the site of an important Hindu temple on the fringes of Kuala Lumpur, occurred on the eve of a mass rally by ethnic Indians in the capital.
At least 3,000 people massed in the temple grounds on Saturday November 24 ahead of the street rally. Police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse the crowd and 69 people were arrested although 43 were let off with a warning.
More than 8,000 people gathered the following day to protest against discrimination by Muslim Malays who dominate the multicultural nation's population, and again faced tear gas and water cannons.
Opposition leader Lim Kit Siang of the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party said the attempted murder charge was "shocking" and a surprise.
"All efforts should be channelled at de-escalating the atmosphere. But the reverse seems to be happening," he said, referring to the turmoil that has worsened Malaysia's already tense race relations.
Ravi said the accused, aged between 19 and 46, would fight the allegations and other charges levelled against them including rioting, illegal assembly and causing damage to public property.
"We can raise reasonable doubt against the charges," he said, adding that the 26 were being detained in Pudu jail in downtown Kuala Lumpur.
While Malays control the nation's political scene and the ethnic Chinese population is dominant in business, Indians complain they run a distant third in terms of wealth, education and opportunities.
Malaysia experienced deadly race riots in May 1969 between Malays and Chinese. Hundreds were killed in the incident, traumatising the nation.