Last edited: November 06, 2004

Anwar Claims Arsenic Poisoning

NewsPlanet, September 10, 1999

SUMMARY: High levels of arsenic are discovered in the Malaysian reformer's system, and his trial on sodomy charges is halted; the government, believed to be plotting against him, vows to investigate.

As the sodomy trial of Malaysia's former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim was moving into its final phase after three months, it was abruptly recessed on September 10 as his defense attorneys charged he has been poisoned with arsenic. A urine sample from the prisoner had somehow been smuggled out and sent under a false name to a laboratory in Melbourne, where very high levels of arsenic were discovered. Anwar was taken to a hospital, still under detention, and trial will not resume until doctors give the go-ahead.

His supporters fear this represents an attempted assassination, just as he has claimed that all the charges of sexual misconduct and corruption brought against him represented a political plot by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed and his colleagues. To Anwar's outrage, the attorney general suggested in the courtroom that he might have been poisoned by his family and friends, with whom he's been allowed to mix while in court, perhaps to gain sympathy. However, the administration has promised a full investigation.

Nearly a year ago when Anwar made his first appearance after being detained for ten days, he was visibly bruised and claimed that police had beaten him unconscious. Mahathir suggested then that he might have injured himself to gain sympathy. It was only months later that a top officer finally admitted to having beaten Anwar, and he'll be going to trial in March. When the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperative met in Malaysia last year, U.S. Vice President Al Gore denounced the treatment of Anwar in terms that offended host Mahathir; this year, Malaysia opted out of the APEC meeting.

The lab report found 230 micrograms of arsenic per gram of creatine; a typical finding would be less than 3 micrograms, while occupational exposure would lead to less than 17 micrograms. Arsenic is a metal, not produced by the body. Poisoning can be chronic, with small doses accumulating over time, or acute, and can be directly fatal or lead to cancer. Anwar's physician wife Dr Wan Azizah Ismail had become concerned when Anwar was showing symptoms including hair loss, weight loss and dry skin.

It seems very likely that the trial will end in a guilty verdict for Anwar and for his adopted brother Sukma Darmawan, who is being tried along with him, since the judge has chosen to accept both the testimony of Wan's former driver Azizan Abu Bakar and Sukma's confession, which Sukma claims was coerced by police. Prosecutors have three times changed the year in which the alleged sexual assault by Anwar and Sukma against Azizan took place, since in the year Azizan had originally cited, the building where he said the assault took place had not yet been erected.

Until a year ago, Anwar had been viewed for some time as "prime minister in waiting" to the aging Mahathir, the longest-ruling leader in Asia. Anwar was also serving as finance minister, and as Malaysia slid into a recession in mid-1998, Mahathir was determined to institute isolationist policies on currency while Anwar was much more aligned with the internationalist policies of the West. [Ed. note: The International Monetary Fund has finally grudgingly admitted that Mahathir's approach was the more successful one, preserving Malaysia from the worst effects of the Asian depression.] They were also clashing politically, with Anwar increasing the volume on his calls for political reform in what had long been essentially a one-party nation, and for an end to the cronyism that fattened the purses of the inner circle. On September 2, 1998, when Anwar refused to resign, Mahathir abruptly fired him from the cabinet and two days later the ruling United Malay National Organization party ousted him as well. Anwar went off on a speaking tour that generated a level of protest not seen in Malaysia in decades, as tens of thousands joined in his call for "reformasi."

But police investigations were already underway against Anwar and his close associates; Anwar was arrested on September 20 and has not been out of jail since. The longest trial in Malaysian history -- proceedings which deeply concerned international observers -- found him guilty of corruption related to an alleged cover-up of the sodomy violations (although he was not tried for the sex offenses themselves) and sentenced him to six years in prison. The tangle of criminal and civil claims and their appeals between Anwar, his associates and the administration will continue for years to come.

Despite the embarrassing allegations detailed against Anwar by the administration and the media, he has remained a symbol for a reform movement which has brought a new level of unity to opposition parties in Malaysia, with his wife Wan playing a central role. Elections are expected before the middle of next year, and Mahathir is expected to retire.

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