Last edited: November 06, 2004

Anwar Convicted in Sodomy Plot

PlanetOut, August 8, 2000

SUMMARY: Unfortunately the guilty verdict against the icon of Malaysia’s reform movement is no surprise, but the use of the sex charge and the trial process still cause outrage.

Malaysia’s former "Prime Minister-in-waiting" Anwar Ibrahim on August 8 was found guilty of sodomy and sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment; the new term is to begin after the completion of his current six-year sentence for abuse of his official powers in covering up alleged sexual misconduct. He has been imprisoned since September 20, 1998 and at best will now emerge in 2009, but he will be unable to participate in politics for another five years thereafter. Anwar’s attorneys will file an appeal within two weeks.

The ousted leader has maintained throughout that the charges against him are the fabrication of a high-level political conspiracy reaching all the way to his former mentor Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamed. Many both in Malaysia and internationally believe that his trials -- two of the longest-running in Malaysian history -- have been less than fair and impartial. British-based human rights watchdog Amnesty International has declared Anwar a "prisoner of conscience."

Background Anwar was popular among international officials in his former role as Finance Minister (1991 - 1998), and when the Asian economic crisis began to impact Malaysia, Anwar was ready to follow the International Monetary Fund line. This set up some of his worst clashes with Mahathir, who preferred to institute more isolationist economic policies. On September 2, 1998, Mahathir abruptly fired Anwar from his positions as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, declaring Anwar not "morally fit" to succeed him as Prime Minister. (Mahathir took over as Finance Minister himself and instituted monetary controls which in fact helped to preserve Malaysia from some of the worst of the crisis, although those controls were soon significantly relaxed when it began to appear they might drive capital out of the country.)

At that point, Anwar began speaking to rallies and demonstrations demanding reform of corruption and cronyism in Mahathir’s government, which until then had ruled all but unopposed. When the rallies and marches swelled into the tens of thousands -- and police measures to control them became increasingly violent -- Anwar was arrested on September 20, 1998, under the Internal Security Act. That did not end his political influence and role as an icon, which were kept alive in part through the political leadership of his wife, Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. Opposition parties scored substantial gains following the November elections, although they still pose little challenge to Mahathir’s ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

The Sodomy Charge The maximum penalty for "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" in Malaysia is 20 years’ imprisonment and 24 lashes with a cane. Anwar was spared the whipping because he is over the age of 50 (he turned 54 on August 10). His adopted brother Sukma Darmawan Saasmitaat Madja stood trial with him and was given two sentences of six years’ imprisonment and two lashes, one sentence for sodomy and the other for abetting Anwar in sodomy; those terms were to be served concurrently and Sukma has been released on bail pending his appeal of his conviction and sentence.

Som Chair Homlor of the human rights group Forum Asia told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, "I think that Dr. Mahathir Mohammed used this law against Dr. Anwar because of the political motivation, because this law has existed for a long time and it has never been enforced, just in the case of Dr. Anwar."

In explaining the impact of the charges against her husband, Wan Azizah told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that, "Sodomy especially in Muslim Malaysia, conservative Muslim Malaysia, would more tarnish his image and also tarnish the family honor."

John Dowd, president of the Australian section of the International Commission of Jurists’ Justice, also expressed concern for how Anwar might now be treated in prison as a result of his conviction. Much of Anwar’s incarceration has been spent in solitary confinement.

In the Courtroom Judge Ariffin Jaka described alleged victim-witness Azizan Abu Bakar, Wan Azizah’s former driver whose testimony was essentially the only evidence offered by the prosecution, as "unimpeachable" -- this despite the fact that during the course of the trial the Judge Ariffin himself had complained that Azizan appeared to change his story from one day to the next. Even the year of the alleged sexual assaults changed twice before the trial began, initially May 1994, then May 1992, and finally one night between January and March of 1993, but the judge shrugged this off as a "mere amendment." Judge Ariffin said, "There is no necessity for Azizan to lie. He has nothing to gain, but everything to lose. There were some discrepancies, but they were explained."

One of Anwar’s attorneys noted in the course of the trial and to reporters afterwards that there were incentives for Azizan: he was made director of one company, then was made an executive at a development company and during the trial was promoted to manager there including the use of a car. The "discrepancies" in Azizan’s ten days of testimony included admitting under cross-examination that he had never been sodomized and that the dates he finally settled on for the alleged crime were dictated by police.

Ariffin also said he found the conspiracy theory not to be relevant to the case and was satisfied that the charges had not been fabricated. He found an earlier confession by Sukma to sodomy with Anwar to be voluntary, even though Sukma had appealed on the grounds that he had been coerced by police (and had apologized to Anwar). Although some observers had called Anwar’s alibi defense "seamless," Ariffin felt there was no evidence presented for his whereabouts from January 1 through February 12. The defense had maintained that the apartment where the alleged offense took place was undergoing renovations during that period, and even presented receipts for the work done; however Ariffin said that, "no evidence was adduced to show when renovation works started and were completed even though there is evidence to show that renovation works were in fact carried out. This finding does not create any reasonable doubt that the offense was not committed in that apartment."

Anwar spent a half-hour reading a prepared statement after his guilt was declared, calling Mahathir "a coward who will not seek responsibility for his own evil, so he used the court. Dr. Mahathir’s lust for power is insatiable. He will lie and force others to lie." Anwar declared, "This case has nothing to do with a crime. There has been no trial in this courtroom, only political persecution... [I am] a victim of a political conspiracy through a web of intrigue orchestrated by the maestro, Mahathir Mohamed."

This sort of material was not what the judge had expected or wanted to hear, and he scolded Anwar that there was no point to blaming everyone. The two exchanged insults and the judge stomped out of the court briefly, but apologized on his return.

Anwar said Mahathir had dumped him from his Cabinet posts and UMNO Party leadership position because of his objections "to the use of massive public funds to rescue the failed businesses of [Mahathir’s] children and cronies." He called his own conviction "is a small sacrifice to pay in the cause of democracy and justice, but I worry for the nation. Corruption is endemic, the pillars of democracy, civil society and the rule of law, are shattered. This nation needs reform and renewal. To Dr. Mahathir and his greedy family and cronies, I say, beware the wrath of the people, for the people are rising to reclaim justice." Anwar said his conviction was "unjust, disgraceful and revolting," and that, "It does not disgrace me; it disgraces you [Ariffin], the judiciary and the nation.’

Prosecutors argued for a "deterrent" sentence. The judge said, "These are despicable acts in our society. This order of offense should meet with utmost condemnation. People who commit such an offense should be dealt with properly."

When the sentence was announced, Anwar was briefly inflamed, first sarcastically telling the judge, "Thank you, your honor, you have completed Mahathir’s plan," and later shouting, "Bloody rotten judiciary! Sick!" Then, calming down, he said of the judge, "I can’t blame him. He’s just following orders."

Reactions in Malaysia People’s Party of Malaysia leader Rustam Sani told the Associated Press that the trial had been a "kangaroo court," adding that, "The injustice is becoming clearer and clearer. The whole struggle now has to go beyond Anwar."

Democratic Action Party leader Kerk Kim Hock also indicated that the verdict and sentence were unjust and would tend to feed opposition protests.

"This will be perceived by the people as another example of how cruel, how oppressive this regime and Dr. Mahathir are," Chandra Muzaffar, deputy president of the National Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Nasional) led by Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah, told Agence France Presse. Chandra promised that, "Even though the next general election will not be until 2003 or 2004, the imprisonment of Anwar will still be the biggest issue, the issue that will galvanize and mobilize the masses. There is no way the people will forget him. You cannot write off Anwar. Mahathir, the coward, dare not take on Anwar. He would rather Anwar is behind prison walls so he can continue to dominate Malaysian politics. He has achieved a large part of his plans but I don’t think Mahathir will be content until and unless he has crushed the opposition totally... I don’t think Mahathir’s plan is over yet."

The Malaysian human rights group SUARAM said in a statement that, "The guilty verdict is on the one hand shocking, yet because of the perceived political power play and the assumption that political masters are involved -- not unexpected. Today, in the midst of the Kuala Lumpur drizzle, the heavens weep for Malaysia and its political prisoners."

The human rights group Aliran told Kyodo News Service that Malaysians will "find it difficult to accept how the guilty verdict could be handed down in the face of glaring discrepancies. More than imprisoning a politician, the verdict has dealt a blow to justice itself. Instead of arresting the erosion of public confidence in the system of justice, it has a tendency to undermine our concept of justice even further."

International Reactions United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers Param Cumaraswamy, who is a Malaysian national, called the verdict "vicious" and a "travesty of justice in the extreme." He warned the future "will further see the deterioration of the integrity, independence and impartiality of the Malaysian judiciary leading to further loss of confidence both domestically and internationally."

A statement from Amnesty International called for the unconditional release of both Anwar and Sukma, saying, "The sentences ... highlight the vulnerability of all Malaysians to selective, politically motivated persecutions using restrictive or discriminatory laws -- including those relating to free speech, to peaceful protest, and in this case, to sodomy. [Amnesty] considers that Anwar Ibrahim was detained and brought to trial not because of any particular alleged crime, but because of his dissenting political activities and the challenge he posed to government leaders. In order to remove Anwar Ibrahim from political life and to discredit him publicly, those in power in Malaysia resorted to measures including the misuse of law, state institutions and the courts, the ill-treatment of detainees to coerce confessions and the erosion of the right to a fair trial," exposing "as never before the fragility of human rights safeguards in Malaysia."

Amnesty’s Damien Spry told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that, "Anwar stood for the restoration of fundamental human rights as guaranteed under the Malaysian Constitution and the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights]. Mahathir favored an undermining of human rights... From the initial detention through to the charges through to the trial and now through to the verdict and to the sentencing, it’s been a political process rather than a judicial process."

Australia’s Opposition spokesperson for foreign affairs Laurie Brereton said that, "Very strong reservations have been expressed by numerous legal observers about the adequacy, fairness and independence of the processes involved in reaching this verdict. Friends of Malaysia can only be profoundly saddened by the injustice that has befallen Anwar and by the damage these proceedings have inflicted upon Malaysia’s international standing."

Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer had to be more restrained in his statement, noting that, "Many people in Australia hold Anwar Ibrahim in very high regard. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on the handling of the trial when the judicial process is yet to be completed. The Australian government continues to hope that the appeal process will reflect the principles of natural justice, due process and the rule of law and address concerns about the fairness of the trial."

New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff was quoted by Reuters as saying there is "deep concern about the adequacy and fairness of the processes followed in reaching this verdict." He noted that concern over the trial proceedings had been expressed by the International Bar Association, the Center for the Independence of Judges, Lawyers of the International Commission of Jurists, and the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, concerns relating "to the reliability and admissibility of evidence, constraints placed on the defense and the independence of the judiciary from the executive."

Protests Despite a last-minute change of date, police warnings, and a heavy police presence that included roadblocks, a cordon of 200 police around the courthouse, water cannon ready for crowd control, and helicopters overhead, at least 200 Anwar supporters were present outside the courtroom. They chanted, "Long live Anwar," "Down with Mahathir" and "Reformasi" -- the call for reform popularized by Indonesian students and picked up by Anwar and his supporters. Police detained at least two. The verdict had originally been scheduled for August 4, and even though it was delayed August 3 without a new date being announced, 300 - 500 demonstrators turned out anyway. Seven were arrested, including two leaders of Wan Azizah’s Keadilan Party; all but one were released August 6.

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