Last edited: November 06, 2004

Outcry Over Anwar Sodomy Verdict

PlanetOut, August 11, 2000

SUMMARY: As a few demonstrators brave police threats to show their support for the ousted reformer, world leaders raise questions about Malaysian justice.

In the wake of the August 8 sodomy conviction and nine-year sentence for Malaysia’s former Prime-Minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim, his supporters on have held the first in a series of street demonstrations and a growing number of world leaders have expressed concern. His attorneys filed a notice of appeal of both the sentence and the conviction on August 11; they said that Anwar was "extremely unwilling" to go ahead with the appeal because he’s lost all confidence in the nation’s courts.

Some 300 people joined the demonstration at the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur on August 11 despite the presence of dozens of police prepared with riot gear and water cannon. Their chants called for the resignation of Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamed and for reform of corruption and cronyism in his administration. After about thirty minutes, about twenty police intervened to break up the demonstration.

A spokesperson for the National Justice Party (Keadilan) led by Anwar’s wife Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said the group is planning to tour the country educating the populace about the administration they called "tyrannical" and holding rallies. He denied that the "reformasi" movement had lost momentum, even though the rallies of the last sixteen months have been only a fraction the size of earlier ones. Police have made hundreds of arrests and used considerable force in breaking up anti-Mahathir rallies. Under Malaysian law, even a handful of people may not legally gather without a police permit, and police have repeatedly warned against any public political demonstrations.

One of the first international responses came from Canada’s Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, who announced August 9 that, "We have called in the Malaysian High Commissioner today to register our consternation directly with governmental authorities over Mr. Anwar’s trial and sentencing." Axworthy called Anwar’s trials "the most glaring examples of the deterioration in Malaysia’s judicial system over the past few years." Canadian Finance Minister Paul Martin added that, "Mr. Anwar [Malaysia’s Minister of Finance for eight years] is a respected colleague and a man of integrity, who in his capacity as finance minister showed strong dedication to enhancing the financial well-being of the Malaysian people. The international community notes with concern the irregularities of his trial, which reflect poorly on the impartiality of Malaysia’s judicial system. An erosion of confidence in the rule of law in Malaysia not only threatens democracy in that country but also raises questions about the current government’s respect for human rights and governance."

Australian Prime Minister John Howard issued his toughest criticism of Malaysia to date on August 10, even though his foreign minister had been careful to say little about the verdict because of the anticipated appeal of the case. Howard said, "There is enough concern, given the long history of this, to cause me to worry that the judiciary there is not as independent as used to be the case. It does seem to be part of a series of events that represents some kind of political campaign against Anwar, and that is a matter of very great concern." Howard began his criticism of Malaysia in 1998, saying Mahathir used "executive authority of the government and the police" to defeat his political opponents, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The European Union’s French presidency issued a statement August 10 with the support of Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Iceland, Latvia, Lichtenstein, Lithuania, Malta, Norway, Poland, Romania, and the Slovak Republic. It said, "The European Union notes with deep concern the verdict announced on August 8, 2000 against Datuk Seri [an honorific] Anwar Ibrahim," saying that a number of aspects of the trial raised "serious doubts" as to its fairness. The EU called for holding the appeal in accordance with accepted international standards.

The U.S., the World Bank, New Zealand, and human rights and jurists groups have also denounced the sodomy trial, as well as the earlier trial that sentenced Anwar to six years imprisonment for abuse of power in allegedly covering up sexual misconduct. Abruptly fired from the Cabinet of his aging mentor Mahathir in September 1998, Anwar was jailed soon after and has been incarcerated ever since. He is generally kept in solitary confinement and his family is only allowed to visit once each month; no exception was made for his 53rd birthday on August 10, although his lawyer came to persuade him to sign the appeal.

Anwar has maintained throughout that the charges against him are the fabrications of a high-level political conspiracy reaching all the way to the Prime Minister himself.

Mahathir and his Cabinet have repeatedly defended the trial and punishment as just and fair, shrugging off international concerns as meddling in their national affairs by biased people who don’t understand Malaysian culture. Thailand and the Philippines have both abided by policies of refusing to comment on another Asian nation’s internal affairs, even though the President of the Philippines has been a close friend of Anwar’s.

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