World

NATION ON TRIAL

D’ARCY JENISH November 23 1998
World

NATION ON TRIAL

D’ARCY JENISH November 23 1998

NATION ON TRIAL

World

Trouble mounts for Mahathir as APEC meets

As he walked into a courtroom in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur one day last week, Anwar Ibrahim looked more like a victorious politician than the defendant in a criminal trial that could net him 20 years in jail. The 51-year-old father of six glanced at supporters gathered outside the courthouse, smiled warmly and waved enthusiastically. Anwar, Malaysia’s deputy prime minister and finance minister until he was fired on Sept. 2 by longtime leader Mahathir Mohamad, is accused of trying to block a police investigation into charges that he sodomized his chauf-

feur and the wife of his personal secretary. The lurid nature of the charges— and the widespread belief that they are part of a political plot to rid Mahathir of a troublesome opponent—have turned the trial into one of Southeast Asia’s most sensational legal dramas in years. Outside court, Anwar is fighting back with jailhouse missives that supporters distribute through the Internet. “I did not anticipate that Mahathir... would act in such a despicable and shameless manner,” Anwar wrote recently. “[His] apparatchiks had been working round the clock to vilify and malign me.”

Anwar’s trial has created a public relations disaster for the 72-year-old Mahathir at a time when he expected to be awash in favorable international attention. This week, he is welcoming 20 world leaders to Kuala Lumpur as host of the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum. But Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and U.S. President Bill Clinton both announced beforehand they would not

meet privately with their host, a standard practice at APEC summits, due to concern over Anwar’s treatment. (Clinton eventually skipped the summit altogether to manage the crisis with Iraq, sending Vice-President AÍ Gore in his place.) Leaders of several Asian countries, including Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, also rejected one-on-one talks with Mahathir, an elected prime minister who has ruled with varying degrees of firmness for 17 years. Adding to the Malaysian leader’s discomfort, Anwar’s wife, Azizah Ismail, met on Saturday with Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy and International Trade Minister Sergio Marchi.

Senior officials also said Chrétien, who has faced strong criticism for the clamping down on demonstrators when he hosted last year’s APEC summit in Vancouver, would make his views about Anwar plain to Mahathir when the two sat next to one another in the closed-door leaders meeting in Cyberview Lodge in Kuala Lumpur’s suburban high-tech area. “Anwar is getting his day in court,” said one aide, “but we are also hearing these reports that the charges are trumped-up.”

Finance Minister Paul Martin also has expressed dismay over the treatment of a man he says he came to regard as a friend after several economic summits. It is a marked change in attitudes to Mahathir, who, while known for his outspoken attacks on the West, had enjoyed international respect for transforming Malaysia into an economic powerhouse. “The PM is getting too recalcitrant,” Anwar told reporters during a recess in his trial, which will be suspended while the APEC gathering is on. “Foreign leaders cannot tolerate him anymore.”

The rancorous dispute between Anwar and his former boss began over policy—how Malaysia would respond ..... . to the economic meltdown that has

knocked many Asian countries into a jarring recession—but it has turned into a political struggle that could shape the future of the country. The brawl has been colored by the fact that the two men were once good friends. Mahathir appointed Anwar deputy prime minister in 1993, and two years ago announced that Anwar would succeed him as leader of the country’s dominant party—the United Malays National Organisation. “Any tremors within UMNO are crucial because they cause convulsions in national politics,” said one political scientist at a Kuala Lumpur university. “Because of the Anwar-Mahathir divide, Malaysia and Malay politics won’t ever return to its old course.” Others say the dispute has brought

the country to a crossroads because the two men represent radiH cally different alternatives. Ma*

hathir, whose career dates from Malaysia’s colonial struggle for independence, is seen as an advocate of government control over the economy, the media and the judiciary, along with constraints on individual rights and freedoms. Anwar, a onetime Muslim youth movement leader, has supported a more open and democratic future. “Our nation is poised between a renewal of democracy or a complete erosion of the instruments of democracy,” Kuala Lumpur lawyer Andrew Khoo said while attempting to get a seat in the courthouse where Anwar is on trial.

Anwar is a popular figure within the nation of 22 million people, and his swift, brutal downfall has shocked many Malaysians. He was dismissed on Sept. 2 for opposing currency controls and a fixed exchange rate—Mahathir’s globally controversial response to the economic crisis—and arrested 18 days later, after leading daily rallies that attracted thousands of people and embarrassed the government. He was charged with five counts of corruption and five of sexual misconduct,

and showed up for one court appearance with a black eye and assorted bruises, which he attributed to a police beating.

The government is basing its case on allegations by Ummi Hafilda Ali, the sister of Anwar’s private secretary, and by his chauffeur Azizan Abu Bakar. On Aug. 5,1997, Ummi wrote a letter to Mahathir accusing Anwar of committing adultery with Shamsidar Taharin, the wife of his private secretary and Ummi’s sister-in-law. Ummi also alleged that Anwar was having a homosexual relationship with Azizan. Two weeks later, she wrote another letter to the prime minister withdrawing her charges and describing them as a product of “imagination and assumption.” Driver Azizan, who was arrested as a result of Ummi’s allegations, at first admitted being sodomized by the deputy prime minister, but later recanted. The government contends that Anwar pressured police officials to obtain the retractions from Ummi and Azizan.

Anwar is currently on trial for obstructing justice, although

the offence is formally known as corruption, and he is expected to be tried for sexual misconduct at a later date. The prosecution opened its case by calling Mo-

hamed Said Awang, the 54-year-old director of the police intelligence unit and one of the officers who apparently convinced Ummi and Azizan to retract their accusations. He proved to be a poor witness, admitting that he did not believe the allegations when they were first levelled against Anwar, and later conceding that he might lie in court if ordered to do so by the prime minister.

The prosecution fared better with Abdul Aziz Husin, another senior police intelligence officer. In a booming voice, Abdul Aziz said he took part in an all-night interrogation of Ummi and Azizan, and threatened to have them jailed indefinitely if they did not withdraw their accusations. He also boasted of creating “a climate of fear,” which prompted lawyer Raja Aziz Addruse, head of Anwar’s nine-member defence team, to ask how the police did that. “Can I demonstrate?” the barrel-chested police witness asked. He then paused momentarily before bellowing into the microphone “Look here!” and

pounding the witness stand with his fist. High Court Judge Augustine Paul dropped his pen as journalists, human rights activists and diplomats sat stunned. A shaken Raja Aziz said: “I won’t do that again, my lord. I got frightened.”

The defence strategy is to prove a political conspiracy against Anwar. While cross-examining one prosecution witness, defence lawyer Christopher Fernando told Paul: “These are trumped-up charges to remove the accused and destroy him politically.” Meanwhile, members of Anwar’s family—who demonstrate their support whenever he enters the courtroom by rising, placing their hands together and bowing—are using the proceedings as a platform to campaign for political reforms in Malaysia. The defendant’s 17-year-old daughter, Nurui Izzah, has distributed white ribbons to journalists and other observers and pinned one on her father’s suit. The white ribbon campaign was launched by a fledgling coalition of reform groups, which sprung up after Anwar’s arrest, and calls on Malaysians to “uphold justice and oppose tyranny.” The official line from the Malaysian government is that the trial is unrelated to any leadership struggle. “Politics and economic policy had nothing to do with our split,” Mahathir insisted in a recent interview. “I discovered that he was involved in sexual activity, with men and women, that is not acceptable in a leader of Malaysia. Believe me, it is just coincidental that this happened during the currency crisis.”

But there are signs that many Malaysians no longer buy what their leaders are saying. “Pm here because I want to seek the truth,” said a retired army officer who one recent morning had joined the daily lineup for seats in the courtroom. “I don’t believe a thing that the local newspaper says. It’s shocking to hear in open court the things that our police force is willing to do to make their victims retract their opinion.” Opposition newspapers have been able to tap into the undercurrent of discontent. Circulation of the twice-weekly Harakah, published by UMNO’s rival, the Malaysian Islamic Party, has soared to 300,000 per issue from 65,000 last June. Web sites supporting Anwar have sprung up on the Internet. Some of the material now available has been written by Anwar himself, and smuggled out of the maximum-security prison where he is being held, 40 km from downtown Kuala Lumpur. In one recent missive, Anwar describes his time in police custody as “pure hell” and adds: “I was humiliated, tortured, stripped, denied any reading and fed meagrely with food wrapped in old newspapers or plastic.”

The simmering discontent has begun to cause alarm within the upper echelons of UMNO. Senior party officials have visited rural communities, a traditional area of support, to offer their version of the events that led to Anwar’s dismissal and trial. But they have been jeered in some places, and had to make one hasty departure because the police could not guarantee their safety. Worse still, a poll of party members showed that more than 70 per cent disagreed with the treatment of the former deputy prime minister. “Anwar symbolizes the politics of greater accountability and openness,” says Lim Kit Siang, opposition leader in the Malaysian parliament, “and when people see Anwar being crushed, their hopes are being crushed.” Mahathir may hear more on that score from his APEC peers.

D’ARCY JENISH

ALVIN UNG