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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

NATION ON TRIAL

Page 2


AS SUCH, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL feels Malaysia is now at crossroads. "The significance of today's trial goes far beyond the fate of Anwar Ibrahim," said the London-based human-rights watchdog in a Nov. 2 press statement. "The trial and its outcome will influence the path Malaysia takes as a society: either toward greater respect for the human rights principles enshrined in the Malaysian Constitution - including freedom of expression and tolerance of dissenting opinion - or toward a more repressive climate marked by the arbitrary and selective use of the law for political purposes."

The paths that lie before the country may not be as dramatically divergent as Amnesty makes them out to be, but there is little doubt that the outcome of the trial will have profound consequences. An acquittal would most severely damage the credibility of Mahathir and other UMNO leaders, who have spent much effort condemning Anwar for his alleged sexual misdeeds and corrupt morals. Even a guilty verdict may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory, as Mahathir himself has acknowledged. "If Anwar is found not guilty, then we lose," he said recently. "If he is convicted, we also lose because we will be accused [of rigging the trial]."

Given the significance of the case and the influence it could have on shaping Malaysia's image abroad, it is perhaps odd that the court started the trial by offending the foreign observers whose goodwill could boost its standing. The first p.r. fumble was over which language the trial was to be conducted in. The presiding judge, Sinnappa Augustine Paul, initially ruled that English would be used, given the immense international interest in the case. "It must be seen that justice is done," he said. "For it to be seen to be done, it must be in a language that they [foreign observers] understand."

Later, however, Chief Justice Eusoff Chin overruled Paul, issuing a circular reminding judges of Section 8 of the National Language Act, which states that all court proceedings must be in Bahasa Malaysia. As foreign groups fretted over the decision, the Bar Council responded to the circular by claiming it was up to the presiding judge to make the final decision. Some leeway has since been given on language, and much of the trial so far has been conducted in English.

The second - and bigger - controversy arose over whether official observer status should be given to Bar Council members and overseas human-rights groups. In the beginning of the trial, lead defense counsel Raja Aziz applied for a watching brief that would allow international observers to sit with the lawyers and monitor the trial. "In my view, this is an opportunity to prove there is no defect in the justice system," said fellow defense lawyer Sulaiman.

Paul rejected the application. "They [observers] have no right to be here in a supervisory role," he told the court. "In my opinion, it would be an insult to this court. Why should we allow someone to come here and see whether a free trial is conducted or not?" The observers' presence, he ruled, would amount to "interference" in the powers accorded him as high-court judge by the federal Constitution.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," says Wesley Gryk, a London-based lawyer sent to monitor the trial on behalf of U.S-based Human Rights Watch. "We're just here as observers, to see how the trial is conducted." Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, expressed her disappointment at the ruling. "I was surprised by the judge's decision," she told Asiaweek. According to U.N. rapporteur Cumaraswamy, this is "the first time in legal history the court has refused to recognize international observers." He worries that this might set a "very negative precedent for the future."

The ruling does not bar observers from sitting in the public gallery, but the limited number of seats, available on a purely first-come-first-served basis, means that access to the courtroom is not guaranteed. Diplomats and foreign visitors denied entry the first day were not slow to air their discontent. Jun Macarambon, part of a three-member congressional delegation from the Philippines, said he felt "humiliated" that they were unable to gain access. The rambunctious press back home took up the issue with gusto, with even the respected Today newspaper warning that Malaysian justice was taking on the air of a "kangaroo court."

Perhaps in a bid to avert any further diplomatic chill - relations between Manila and Kuala Lumpur are already frosty because Philippine President Joseph Ejercito Estrada has expressed support for his "friend" Anwar - presidential spokesman Fernando Barican made a statement to offset the newspapers' comments. "It is the prerogative of the Malaysian government, particularly the Malaysian courts, to choose the persons or groups to be granted access to watch the trial," he said.

Not every neighbor has been as judicious, however. Addressing reporters on Nov. 3, Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan launched an indirect criticism of Kuala Lumpur, saying that while the matter was Malaysia's internal problem, it had far-reaching effects on fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. "Several nations have expressed concern over the issue, which could possibly affect ASEAN's unity and image," he said. "Malaysia's action could decrease [our] bargaining power internationally."

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