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THE BATTLE GOES ON

In the face of the charges against him, Anwar Ibrahim pleads not guilty and vows to continue his fight for reform

By Sangwon Suh


Interview Najib Razak, the man who would be Deputy PM

Editorial What Malaysia wants from Mahathir

HE REALLY DIDN'T NEED to be in court. Having arrested him under the Internal Security Act (ISA), the authorities were under no legal obligation to put him on trial. The draconian law, intended for people perceived to be threats to national security, allows for the detainee to be held initially for up to 60 days without being charged. After that, he or she is either released or incarcerated for two years. After that, the Home Ministry can renew the detention on a two-yearly basis for an indefinite period. But this was no ordinary prisoner. It was former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim - sacked from the government, expelled from the party and arrested under highly controversial circumstances. For all the talk of Anwar being a sodomist, an adulterer and a traitor, nothing in the way of compelling evidence had been produced to justify the dismissal. If the government was to retain any credibility at all, it had to prosecute him and show in an open trial precisely why he was deemed unfit to be in a position of power and authority.

Thus, on Sept. 29 Anwar was produced in Kuala Lumpur's federal courthouse amid tight security to face nine charges: four counts of unnatural sex and five counts of corruption. If the authorities were hoping for some cooperation from Anwar, they didn't get it. "I plead not guilty; I claim trial," he said firmly to each of the charges. (He uttered the same words when he appeared in a courthouse in suburban Petaling Jaya the next day to face an additional sodomy charge.)

He then turned the table on his accusers, claiming that he was the victim of police brutality. When he appeared in court that morning - his first public appearance since his arrest nine days earlier - observers noticed that he was sporting a black eye and a bruised arm. On the first night of his arrest, Anwar charged, he was blindfolded and then punched and slapped by his police handlers until his lips had cracked and his left eye swollen shut. He "passed out" until the morning and was denied medical attention for five days.

In a press conference afterward, Anwar's wife demanded an explanation from the government for his state of health. "There was a hematoma [swelling of blood] on the left eye, a small depression on the left forehead, and his vision was impaired," said Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, an ophthalmologist by training. "This shows my fears [about his safety] were not unfounded." The court allowed an eye doctor to examine Anwar, and the police later announced that an independent investigation would look into his claims.

The matter predictably drew critical reactions from the usual quarters. Both Australian Prime Minister John Howard and the U.S. State Department expressed their concern; "the perpetrators," said the latter, "should be brought to justice." No such words were forthcoming from Asian nations, which generally kept their opinions to themselves (though many of their newspapers ran outraged editorials), or from Anwar's chief adversary, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who suggested that the injuries may have been self-inflicted. (Wan Azizah retorted: "I am shocked that a former medical doctor can say so without personally examining my husband."). Mahathir did add that the authorites would investigate Anwar's complaints.

For all the apparent beating he received, Anwar remained unbowed. "I am in good spirits," he said and vowed to fight on. With Anwar remaining in a defiant mood, a quick resolution to Malaysia's political crisis does not seem to be in the cards. The Mahathir-Anwar saga, it appears, still has a long way to go.

It certainly has come a long way. When Mahathir fired Anwar on Sept. 2, he may have thought that his deputy would fade away in the absence of support and patronage from the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the most powerful party in the ruling coalition. But Anwar went on a nationwide roadshow to present his case; tens of thousands of Malaysians turned out to see him. When he organized a demonstration in central Kuala Lumpur on Sept. 20, up to 50,000 people rallied around his call for reform.

So Mahathir swiftly and firmly cracked down on the incipient movement. Anwar was arrested in a commando-like raid; seventeen others, most of them of his close associates, were also detained under the ISA (five have since been released). Demonstrations supporting the former student activist were broken up by force and over a hundred arrests made. Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah, was threatened with detention under the ISA if she tried to organize more rallies. With its dramatic show of force, the government might have been forgiven for thinking it had cowed both diehard supporters and quiet sympathizers of Anwar into submission.

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