Back to the future in Malaysia with Anwar sodomy trial II

July 1, 2009

By Barani Krishnan

A decade ago, Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim was on trial for sodomy and corruption in a trial that exposed the seamy side of Malaysian justice and the anxieties of a young country grappling with a crushing financial crisis and civil unrest.

Anwar is Malaysia’s best known political figure, courted in the U.S. and Europe and probably the only man who can topple the government that has led this Southeast Asian country for the past 51 years.

Photo: Anwar Ibrahim, with a bruised eye, at court on Sept 30, 1998 during his his first trial. REUTERS/David Loh
Now the leader of the opposition, will go on trial next week again charged with sodomising a 23-year old male aide. The trial once again looks likely to provide gory evidence and bringing some unwanted attention from the world’s media on this Southeast Asian country of 27 million people. It could also embarrass the government and draw international criticism.

Anwar vowed in a recent interview to fight what he says are trumped up charges.

The 14 months I spent covering the 1998 trials saw Anwar accused of sodomy with three men and having sex with a woman over a period of years. This case is simpler, there is just one accuser. All homosexual acts are illegal in this mainly Muslim country and sex outside marriage is illegal for Muslims.

The first trial was gruelling. Lines began as early as four in the morning as people tried to get into the court that could seat less than 200. Most of the spectators were ordinary people, but there was a sprinkling of dignitaries and businessmen who had known Anwar when he was in office.

There was a separate media queue and again a fight to get in line as dozens of reporters from local and international outlets jockeyed for space. Ringing the court were hundreds of riot police, backed by watercannon, waiting for trouble in a country where there were daily protests at the time, often involving tens of thousands of people.

Once inside the courtroom, things were equally unpredictable. Judge Augustine Paul, plucked from obscurity to oversee Malaysia’s most important criminal trial, won national fame for his oft-repeated response of “not relevant” to evidence introduced by the defence team.

The evidence itself was often contradictory and often bizarre. Ummi Hafilda Ali, a star witness for the prosecution called Anwar a “dog” and prayed that he would contract AIDS. At one stage the prosecution paraded a mattress in and out of the courtroom, saying that semen stains showed Anwar had had sex with a man on it.

One day outside the court, a witch doctor cast a spell, for no apparent reason.

Anwar showed up sporting a black eye that he said had been inflicted on him in prison by the country’s police chief. This time round he says that he was forced to strip and his sexual organs measured in a hospital.

The evidence to be presented by the prosecution this time looks likely to be just as sensational. The malaysianmirror web portal, backed by one of the government parties, said there will be 30 witnesses, a carpet and a video recording, as well as a DNA evidence brought into court.

Anwar’s team, citing two medical reports, says there is no evidence that Saiful Bukhari Azlan was sodomised. Saiful meanwhile has sworn on the Koran that he was and wasn’t best pleased when the charge against Anwar was changed to consensual sex.

One key actor in the whole drama is missing this time round. Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who critics say used the 1998 trial to drive Anwar from office and to humiliate him, is no longer in power. That removes some of the sting.

Even so, incumbent premier Najib Razak attracts plenty of ire from the opposition. He has been forced to deny allegations from the opposition and opposition-supporting websites that he was involved in the lurid murder of a Mongolian model.

The country remains tense in the wake of the 2008 general election in which the government lost its customary two-thirds majority.

Can Anwar survive another trial? Without him, can the opposition prosper and have a real chance of winning at the ballot box  in elections due to be held by 2013. Can Najib survive as prime minister if Anwar remains free and can he implement economic reforms?

3 comments

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Malaysia has more than once used the sodomy card to assassinate political opponents.

Anwar Ibrahim has been a thorn in the flesh of the ruling party. He is an extremely strong and capable opposition leader. By trying to revive the sodomy charges, the government is playing with fire. Can Anwar Ibrahim’s legal team convince the judges of Anwar’s innocence is very difficult to contemplate! Malaysians and the international community will follow the trial with abated breath.

All these political games could harm the image of Malaysia- one of the rare stable Muslim countries in the eyes of world community… However, if Mahathir Mohamad considered that Anwar should quit the “game” and the same is considered by Najib- then he must. No matter if he is gay or not. The main thing is to protect Malaysia.

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