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ASIA
OCTOBER 12, 1998 VOL. 152 NO. 14


Blackest Hours
Malaysia's political stability suffers a further blow as Anwar Ibrahim appears in a Kuala Lumpur court displaying the scars of an apparent beating
By TIM LARIMER Kuala Lumpur

Malaysia has learned a whole new vocabulary since its political crisis began several weeks ago. Nasty accusations, ugly innuendo and radical slogans all are popping up on newspaper front pages and Internet websites and in public demonstrations that have shaken up normally placid Kuala Lumpur. One day it's sodomy, graphically explained in an otherwise prudish press. The next it's reformasi, demanded by a normally passive population. But the war of words was finally hushed last week by a startling image. Anwar Ibrahim, the man once groomed to succeed Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, was ushered out of a jail cell and into a courtroom to face charges of sodomy and corruption. He had been arrested nine days earlier, and this was the first time anyone but his captors had seen him.

And what a sight he was. His left eye was badly bruised and so swollen it was halfway shut. He told the judge that on the night of his arrest, he had been handcuffed, blindfolded and beaten until he passed out. Then he removed his glasses to reveal the damage. That's when the courtroom--and the country--grew silent. That's when it became clear that Malaysia itself, one of Asia's most stable and prosperous countries, had been given a black eye.

The potential political consequences run deeper than the wound itself. "This is not something new for the police force," police spokesman Ghazali Mohamad Amin told journalists, in a curious choice of words that were meant to reassure. "Previous investigations have found police personnel guilty, and action was taken against them." Many Malaysians, however, feel that something fundamentally new and shocking had taken place. "Of course everyone knows there is police brutality," says lawyer Sivarasa Rasiah. But this time, the victim was the man who until recently was Deputy Prime Minister. "That," says Sivarasa, "stunned people."

To many, the charges--which Anwar denies--seem too incredible to believe. He was accused of five counts of sodomy (homosexual acts are illegal in Malaysia) and five counts of corruption (for allegedly trying to cover up the purported sexual crimes). But the government's case suffered a setback last week when two of the men who had confessed to having sex with Anwar recanted their confessions. Prosecutors, however, produced yet another man--a tailor who once made clothes for Anwar's wife--who claims to have been sodomized by Anwar in a hotel room in 1992. Still, the revelation that Anwar was beaten in custody--later confirmed by a doctor--could damage the government's credibility. "How can we believe these things when he is treated so unfairly?" asks a state office worker who watched as Anwar's young children were led through police barricades to visit their father last week. The response from Mahathir was unrelenting. Maybe, the Prime Minister was quoted as saying by national news agency Bernama, the wounds were self-inflicted. Anwar, he said, would "receive much mileage if he can show that he had been tortured by police."

Whoever was responsible may have been calculating that authorities could keep Anwar locked up and out of sight for weeks, even months if necessary, without actually charging him with any crimes. He was arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows suspects to be detained for 60 days without being charged or put on trial, because, as Mahathir has explained, he was inciting riots. Indeed, thousands of people had taken to the streets for several days before--and just after--Anwar's arrest. But if there were such a calculation by his jailers, it crumbled amid growing pressure, even from within the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO), to charge Anwar immediately and answer criticisms that he was arrested only because he challenged Mahathir. "People see Anwar as a symbol of everyone who has been unjustly treated," says Syed Husin Ali, a sociologist who himself was jailed for six years in the 1970s for demonstrating in support of hunger-striking students. "This system has left many people dissatisfied because they lack access to political connections. Now they have a way to express that anger."

PAGE 1  |  2



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