Another face-off took place the following day, Saturday. Protesters started gathering in downtown Merdeka Square. The police first issued a polite warning: We don't want to use force. Please go home. After a second warning, water cannons were deployed to clear the streets. The police continued to break up pockets of protest into the evening. Thirteen people were arrested.
Still, the protests refused to die down. Yet another one took place near the square on Sept. 28, despite the fact that the authorities had closed the area off to the public. About 1,000 Anwar supporters congregated and jeered at the riot squads stationed to prevent people from entering the square. Displaying less delicacy than on Saturday, the police moved in with batons and electric prods, beating those unfortunate enough to get caught. Scores more were taken into custody.
If the continuing demonstrations indicate anything, it is that sympathy for Anwar runs deep. Part of the reason is no doubt his campaign to take his case to the people, and his constant agitations to clear his name and attack the administration. He has been able to strike back at his accusers even after his arrest. On Sept. 24, a videotaped testimony by Anwar was aired worldwide on cable news channel CNBC. In the message, Anwar portrayed himself as a champion of the people who has fallen victim to vested interests. "What is my sin?" he asked. "My sin was wanting to protect truth, justice and the interests of the people."
UMNO leaders have not been sitting idly by during Anwar's p.r. blitz. After an initial period of silence, Mahathir himself has been speaking in public regularly to defend his position and attack Anwar. On Sept. 22, he told the press that he initially did not believe the sodomy allegations against Anwar but was forced to change his mind in the face of witness testimonies. Three days later, he used his speech at an UMNO women's conference to swing away at his erstwhile deputy. Labeling homosexuality as "disgusting," he declared: "In Malaysia, we cannot accept a leader who has a strange behavior." He also played the nationalism card, asserting that a sexually immoral leader would be vulnerable to foreign pressure.
Mahathir's position received a boost when Hanif Omar, the respected former inspector-general of police, recently revealed that his officers had gathered evidence of Anwar's homosexuality as far back as 1993. According to Hanif, he reported the matter to Mahathir and was later summoned by Anwar, who "did not ask me how the evidence was obtained but wanted to know if my officers would use the evidence to blackmail him. I told him that the police were not in the blackmail business and advised him to stop indulging in homosexuality."
Many Malaysians, though, still have doubts about the official line. UMNO leaders concede that the biggest problem they face is winning the hearts of the people. "I am now inclined to accept that Anwar did all the things," says an UMNO MP. "But ordinary people - my own family, friends, people in my division, the little guys I meet - they're just not convinced. I don't know how we're going to convince them." An official close to the PM's office notes: "It has become a matter of faith. Those who are inclined toward the prime minister will believe him. Those who aren't won't."
The level of faith in the judiciary is also a factor. "People remember how Mahathir debauched the judicial system in the 1980s by firing judges who disagreed with him," says a former cabinet minister and retired UMNO leader. "They know that the judiciary doesn't have the credibility it once had." To which Chief Justice Mohamed Eusoff Chin responds: "I am not under anyone's control. I do not instruct my judges on what sort of fines or jail sentences to mete out."
Yet lawyers for the defense certainly question the due process - or the lack thereof - afforded Anwar and those charged in related cases. Take the case of Anwar's onetime tennis partner, S. Nallakaruppan, who was charged in August under the ISA for possession of 125 unlicensed bullets. On Sept. 2, he made a routine request to be moved back to prison from the police headquarters where he was being held. The police responded with four now-infamous affidavits stating why he shouldn't be transferred; the documents contended that he had acted as the middleman in Anwar's sexual trysts. They also alluded to possible treasonous activities, stating that since Nallakaruppan "often accompanies Anwar Ibrahim on his duties abroad, it is feared that his activities can be exploited by mischievous elements in and out of the country that want to jeopardize national security."