Fight to Clear Anwar’s Name Is Far From Over
Asia Online, September 10,
By Michael Backman
Last week’s decision by Malaysia’s Federal Court to
overturn former deputy prime minister and finance minister Anwar Ibrahim’s
conviction for sodomy might have got him out of jail, but it did not get him
off the hook.
Many commentators and journalists who commented and
reported on the decision do not appear to have read the detail of the 36-page
The initial conviction rested on a confession by
Anwar’s co-accused, his adopted brother Sukma Darmawan, and statements by
the only witness, Anwar’s wife’s driver, who claimed to have been
sodomised by both men.
The charges against the two men related to acts of sodomy
between given dates, dates that famously had to be changed three times on the
charge sheet. The Federal Court majority judgement ruled Sukma’s confession
as inadmissible. The judges found that it had been obtained under duress.
There is little doubt as to Sukma’s sexual orientation,
but what the court had to prove beyond reasonable doubt was that the incidents
occurred within the dates specified by the charges. The Federal Court judges
found that the dates had not been proven, and it was on this basis that they
allowed Anwar’s appeal.
Critically, the majority judgement says: “We find
evidence that the appellants were involved in homosexual activities.” It is
this point that many in the media, particularly outside Malaysia, seem to have
missed. What they couldn’t find evidence for was the dates.
In one respect the majority judgement goes further than
earlier courts. It finds that the driver was “an accomplice” to the acts
of sodomy. Earlier courts had judged him to be a victim.
To put it crudely, the judges paint a picture of a happy
threesome, rather than of two sexual aggressors.
Rumours of Anwar’s homosexual activities had circulated
in Kuala Lumpur for years. Hanif Omar, the well-regarded police chief from
1974 to 1993, has publicly stated that the police were concerned before 1993
about Anwar’s alleged homosexual activities, because of the risk of
blackmail. In that year he had informed then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad
of the concerns. Mahathir at that stage found Hanif’s claims difficult to
believe and Anwar was not charged for another five years.
Why does all this matter? Because in Malaysia, politics
and business are inextricably linked. Anwar had no shortage of “clients”
in the business sector when he served as finance minister. He awarded banking
licences to conglomerates that previously had been unable to get them, and his
people were appointed to the helms of various government-linked companies. His
backers in the business community manipulated the stockmarket to raise funds
for his campaigns within the ruling party.
Many Malaysians are pleased to see Anwar released, but
that might be more a consequence of a Malay preference to let bygones be
bygones rather than because of a view that the sodomy charges were fabricated.
When asked to express an opinion regarding Anwar’s guilt, most Malaysians
seem to be of the view that they just don’t know.
Indeed, what was unusual about Anwar’s treatment was
that it was so devastating. The winner-take-all approach is alien to Malay
culture. Had the Government, and more particularly Mahathir, orchestrated
events in the grand conspiracy that is supposed to have occurred, then
Anwar’s annihilation is unlikely to have been so total.
It’s more usual in Malaysia for the defeated to be
allowed to retire from the public sphere with a degree of dignity.
In any event, politicians in Malaysia do not direct the
outcomes of trials, contrary to widespread belief. Ministers do not call
judges and demand convictions. There’s no need. Typically the judiciary does
the Government’s bidding without being asked.
A very senior Malaysian Government figure once described
Malaysia’s judiciary to me as a “bunch of bloody idiots”. “Of course
we want them to favour us,” he explained, “but not to the point where
Anwar’s prosecution pointed to a process so out of
control that none of the participants was able to stop it. The police and the
judiciary overestimated what was expected of them, and the Government, true to
its word, did not intervene. Instead it looked on with rising horror and
Mahathir might have hoped for Anwar’s removal, not his
But does the freeing of Anwar now signal a more
independent judiciary? Maybe not. Perhaps once more, the judiciary was simply
second guessing the Government’s wishes. The new Prime Minister, Abdullah
Badawi, appeared to be quite comfortable with the court’s decision and among
the well-wishers at Anwar’s house soon after was Khairy Jamaluddin,
Abdullah’s son-in-law and close adviser.
Will Anwar rise once more? Electoral support for his
cause appeared to be waning at this year’s elections, when the opposition
party headed by his wife saw its representation in Malaysia’s Federal
Parliament fall from five seats to one.
Also, the fact that the Federal Court cleared Anwar of
the conviction, but not the allegations, will not go unnoticed by many in
Malaysia. Nor will it go unnoticed by Anwar’s many enemies, who will have an
interest in reminding the electorate and the ruling party that, in the view of
all three Federal Court judges, Anwar is a sodomite.
Of course, in more liberal countries the notion that
sodomy is a criminal offence is absurd, but in a morally conservative society,
it’s not a foundation on which to rebuild a political career.
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