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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

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

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From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


Revelations of brutality boost Anwar's credibility and wound the police reputation

By Tim Healy and Arjuna Ranawana/Kuala Lumpur

The Commissioners

The Balance Sheet


'I AM TOUCHED': Wan Azizah

'WE ARE THE ALTERNATIVE': Pas's president

ABDUL RAHIM NOOR ENTERS the Royal Commission of Inquiry hearing room in Kuala Lumpur March 2 shorn of the uniform he wore for 29 years in various positions with the Royal Malaysian police force. He resigned Jan. 7 as inspector-general of police (IGP), the nation's top cop, and he now seems somehow diminished in a neat gray suit and quiet tie. The room is pin-drop silent as Rahim begins to talk about the events that led to the beating of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim after being arrested Sept. 20, 1998, the incident the commission is scrutinizing.

"Uppermost in mind [that day] was not to allow a repeat of lootings, riots and burnings [that happened] in Jakarta," says Rahim. Anwar was fired by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in early September and subsequently launched what became known as the reformasi movement, which was characterized by fiery speeches and burgeoning crowds. On the day of his arrest, Anwar led a demonstration of more than 40,000 people through the streets of the capital. "We [police officials] believed the chemistry of people in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur is similar." With this tense day behind him, Rahim visited Anwar in jail. The IGP says he had no thoughts of hurting the man who was my "close friend." As he entered Anwar's cell and approached the prisoner to remove a blindfold, Rahim claims, the former deputy prime minister growled a greeting: "Ni bapa anjing" - this father of all dogs - which meant "the chief lackey." "I lost my cool," admits Rahim. "I slapped him left and right. He fell. Within that split second I couldn't remember," he continues, choosing his words carefully, "whether I delivered other physical acts, but at that instant I felt someone pulling me back."

Thus came the most dramatic personal confession of the last five months in the serial drama that has become Malaysian politics. Anwar was fired Sept. 2 and arrested nearly three weeks later. He first appeared in public Sept. 29 sporting a black eye and claiming to have been beaten by police. Since then, Malaysia has been beset by minor tremors that center on the circumstances of Anwar's arrest, his trial on charges that he used his political office to kill an investigation into his sex life, and the political fallout from both. But this week came a full-fledged, roof-rattling political earthquake.

When the shaking began, Mahathir found himself far from the epicenter, attending a summit in Bangladesh of leaders from the world's eight largest Muslim countries as measured by population. The prime minister told a press conference in Dhaka after Rahim testified that he was disappointed in the former IGP but would allow Malaysian law to take its course and mete out the appropriate punishment.

Mahathir may find he cannot be sanguine for long about the matter. Rahim's story of Anwar's arrest and early days of detention reveal a stumbling, bungling police department in which critical decisions like how a prisoner is charged and treated - even one as important as Anwar - are either not well-communicated or are left to the whims of officers at all levels. In that sense, the inquiry, which is an unprecendented public examination of police practices in Malaysia, is deeply embarrassing to the entire law-enforcement establishment. Moreover, Mahathir was acting as home minister at the time of Anwar's arrest and was directly responsible for the police.

The PM deserves credit for pursuing the truth of Anwar's beating after an initial police investigation failed to turn up the culprit. Rahim resigned following the statement by Attorney-General Mohtar Abdullah early this year that after more than two months of investigation, he was certain the police were responsible - but unsure what individual or individuals to blame. At the time, the IGP did not acknowledge he had personally beaten Anwar. Rahim, 56, now says he did not admit to the assault because he was concerned about incriminating himself. Mahathir subsequently asked the Malaysian king to establish the three-person commission to examine the incident. The commission, which began taking testimony Feb. 22, is chaired by the former chief judge of the High Court of Malaya, Anuar Zainal Abidin.

Rahim's lawyer, Teh Poh Teik, was the first to name his client as the one who actually struck Anwar. Anwar's own trial before High Court Judge Augustine Paul normally takes Sundays off. This allowed the defendant to testify at a special session of the commission. Anwar implicated Rahim as being in or near his cell at the time of the beating. Even though he was blindfolded, Anwar said, he heard someone clear his throat and was almost certain it was Rahim. The IGP's lawyer, Teh, thus got a chance to cross-examine the former deputy PM. He asked whether Anwar had provoked police anger by criticizing Malaysia's law enforcement in public speeches. Anwar insisted he had attacked the "behavior" of police but not the police themselves. Then came this exchange:

ANUAR (TO TEH): I warned you, your questions may draw answers you do not want.

TEH (TO ANWAR): On the day you were in the cell, you were hit by Tan Sri [honorific title] Rahim Noor because you provoked him.

(The courtroom quiets as everyone is taken by surprise.)

ANUAR: Ah, that is direct.

ANWAR: (pause) I'm stunned. So, I was right all along. It is the first time I've heard this. There was absolutely no conversation at all in the cell except for my cry [after being struck] and the "ahem" [that I assumed was Rahim].

TEH: You provoked him by uttering these words: "Ni bapa anjing."

ANWAR: There was no utterance of that sort.

Soon after Teh was done with him, Anwar wondered why Rahim would have assaulted him: "As late as early August 1998, [Rahim] came over to my office and we had what I would term a 'brotherly' chat. He held my hand with some affection" and urged me to settle my differences with the PM.

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This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home


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Tanks, missiles, roll through Beijing in display of might

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TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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