Last edited: November 06, 2004

Anwar Trial Resumes

PlanetOut News, January 25, 2000

Malaysia’s reform leader is back in court facing sodomy charges he says are politically motivated, but after the re-election of his nemesis as Prime Minister, the coverage has cooled.

The highly political sodomy trial of Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim resumed on January 25. Proceedings had been suspended for national elections in November. Although Anwar served as a symbol which united opposition groups in Malaysia as never before, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed -- the longest-serving leader in Asia -- and his UMNO party were easily re-elected to another five-year term and another unbeatable majority in the parliament. Despite that success, the administration recently carried out another round of arrests of opposition leaders and former associates of Anwar’s. Meanwhile, Anwar could still face up to 20 years in prison and a caning if convicted of charges he has stoutly maintained were entirely contrived by government officials for political reasons. The trial is expected to last another two months.

Numerous police were stationed outside the courthouse in riot gear with water canon, and despite advance warnings from the government, demonstrators gathered and chanted for "reformasi." Although they remained peaceful, ten or eleven of the protesters were arrested in the morning. Although reports are not entirely consistent, it appears that originally there were several small groups of protesters who were dispersed but joined up again more than once, with total participation variously quoted at 200 - 500.

In denouncing the arrests of the demonstrators, Elizabeth Wong, coordinator of the human rights group Suaram (Suara Rakyat Malaysia) said in a statement, "We are spiraling up the ladder of authoritarianism so rapidly that one day, Malaysians may wake up to a totalitarian state."

Anwar was described as looking gaunt in his first public appearance since November 11, but he smiled and even signed some autographs for supporters. He once again cited "a high-level conspiracy involving prominent politicians." His attorneys were granted an early dismissal to review records they say will support his alibi. Anwar’s lead attorney, Karpal Singh, is himself facing sedition charges, and in turn has accused the attorney general of bringing those charges to interfere with his defense of Anwar. The numerous charges, lawsuits and appeals involving almost every party to the case will continue for years to come.

Anwar’s troubles began in earnest in mid-1998, when in his role as finance minister he clashed with Mahathir over fiscal policies, Mahathir preferring a more isolationist approach which in fact helped Malaysia weather Asia’s financial crash. Anwar, who had been viewed as "prime minister in waiting" to succeed the aging Mahathir, had also become increasingly vocal about corruption in the administration. In September 1998, Mahathir abruptly fired Anwar, who was quickly deposed from his leadership role in UMNO as well, on grounds of immorality. Anwar’s continued allegations of government corruption stirred up a level of protest the nation hadn’t seen in thirty years, with street demonstrations with as many as 20,000 participants. Police responded with increasing force and numerous arrests, and before the month was out, Anwar himself was arrested -- and has not been out of prison since. He was originally arrested under a national security law that gives the government essentially unlimited powers to arrest individuals and hold them indefinitely without outside contact. During those first two weeks of detention, Anwar was severely beaten, a beating to which the nation’s chief law enforcement official much later admitted to administering himself. Malaysia hosted an APEC meeting soon afterwards at which U.S. Vice President Al Gore referred to Anwar’s treatment in a major speech, chilling Mahathir towards both the U.S. and APEC.

Anwar was ultimately charged with five counts of sodomy and five counts of corruption, the latter being alleged abuse of power in attempting to cover up the alleged sexual misconduct. He was first tried on the corruption counts in what became the nation’s longest-running trial, which was reported by the government-controlled media in a lurid fashion not seen there before. Anwar was ultimately convicted and sentenced to six years in prison -- a sentence which ended his political career for even longer. Those trial proceedings were widely denounced by both international observers and Malaysian human rights groups.

In June 1999 the government began prosecution of Anwar for sexually assaulting his wife’s former chauffeur, even though the year in which the sodomy was alleged to have occurred was changed three times -- and the victim-witness himself was later charged with a different form of sexual misconduct in the course of the trial. The proceedings were delayed several times when Anwar became ill; his family smuggled out samples and was advised by an Australian laboratory that he was suffering from arsenic poisoning, although the government sent samples to labs on three different continents without finding that result. There was another delay when the judge became ill. Finally a further delay was imposed on November 15 after Mahathir called the elections for November 29, because the opposition movement had continued to grow with Anwar as its symbol and his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, in a leadership role. However, the media coverage (both local and international) and public response to the second trial has been only a shadow of the first.

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