Turning the Tables in a Very Tawdry Trial
By prosecuting an opponent on sex charges, Malaysia's regime makes him more popular
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA--The defendant enters the courtroom smiling. He sets his family laughing at a joke, banters in front of reporters, waves to the crowd. Anwar Ibrahim faces 10 counts of abuse of power and sexual misconduct, but he acts like he has just won an election.
Perhaps, in a sense, he has. The lurid charges of adultery, sodomy, and homosexuality--all serious crimes in this predominantly Muslim country--were apparently intended to disgrace Anwar and end his political career. But in a wholly unexpected way, the tables have been turned on his chief accuser and political rival, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The trial has exposed the brutal methods used by police to extort confessions, discrediting the Mahathir regime and making Anwar a hero to many of Malaysia's 22 million people. Thousands have demonstrated for his release--and for Mahathir's resignation.
Unless the Iraq crisis interferes, President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright are scheduled to visit Kuala Lumpur this week for an economic summit meeting of the leaders of 21 Pacific Rim countries. But to avoid any situation that could possibly be construed as showing support for Mahathir, Clinton and Albright have refused to hold any bilateral meetings with Malaysian officials.
Black eye. Only a few months ago, Anwar, 51, was deputy prime minister and the designated successor to the 72-year-old Mahathir, who has ruled for 17 years. After challenging Mahathir's economic policies, however, Anwar was fired in early September. He then launched a grass-roots campaign for reform, which quickly gathered momentum until he was arrested on September 20. He showed up for his arraignment with a black eye and bruises.
The case has propelled his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, into the front lines of Malaysia's dangerous politics. An eye doctor by training, she comes to court each day wearing a Muslim head scarf and long robe. Some of her six children also attend, wearing badges around their necks that say: "Justice for Papa." In the evening, Wan Azizah entertains a train of visitors at her suburban house while children run in and out. "I knew when I married Anwar that we would be in for some rough spots," she says, adding that she believes he was simply "too popular" for Mahathir to tolerate.
In the trial, which began November 2, prosecutors are attempting to show that while Anwar was in the government he abused his power to cover up his sexual activities. A parade of police officers have testified that they coerced witnesses in order to protect Anwar.
Anwar's supporters call this a cynical, Orwellian tactic. They say the government has turned reality upside down: First, the police tortured people into false confessions of homosexual relations with Anwar. Then, his supporters say, the government accused Anwar of ordering police to make these witnesses recant.
Testifying for the prosecution, members of the Special Branch of the Malaysian police said they use long interrogations, bullying questions, and implied threats of violence to get witnesses to change their stories.
"May I demonstrate [these methods]?" Officer Abdul Aziz Husin politely asked the judge last week. After a nod from the bench, Abdul Aziz abruptly slammed his hand on the witness stand, pointed to the defense counsel as though aiming a pistol, and shouted into the microphone: "You shut up!" The defense attorney seemed stunned. "I was also frightened," said the judge, provoking nervous laughter in the packed courtroom.
But even though this testimony has been aimed against Anwar, it has worked in his favor, at least with the Malaysian public. It is now obvious to Malaysians that the police "can turn truth into a lie and a lie into truth," says Dato Param Cumaraswamy, a Malaysian lawyer who serves as the United Nations' special rapporteur on judicial independence. "This has discredited the entire system."
Indeed, many Malaysians were shocked in September by the arrest and rapid conviction of two close associates of Anwar after what appeared to be forced confessions of homosexual relationships. Fatima Belhadi says her convicted husband, Islamic scholar Munawar Anees, was taken from their home and held in isolation until he appeared in court with his head shaven, shaking uncontrollably. He subsequently suffered a heart attack. "They have broken him," she says quietly.
Mahathir is still firmly in charge in Malaysia, and he insists that Anwar will receive a fair trial. Getting others to believe it is the problem.
This story appears in the November 23, 1998 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.