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World - Asia/Pacific

Malaysian Prime Minister under pressure over police force

New deputy appointed

January 9, 1999
Web posted at: 3:05 a.m. EST (0805 GMT)

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (CNN) -- After Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad appointed a new heir apparent, Malaysian opposition groups on Saturday called for the government to clean up its police force.

Longtime Foreign Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was named Mahathir's deputy on Friday.

Badawi's predecessor, Anwar Ibrahim, was sacked from the post in September and charged with 10 counts of corruption and illegal sex. Anwar denies the charges, claiming he was framed because he threatened Mahathir's leadership.

But Mahathir's political allies on Saturday endorsed the reshuffling, which also saw the Prime Minister pass on the powerful Home Ministry to Badawi.

The Home Minister is responsible for the police force and had been controlled by Mahathir for the past 10 years.

Mahathir had in recent days come under pressure from the opposition and rights activists to relinquish the home minister's job amid mounting criticism of the police force, accused by the attorney-general of beating Anwar after he was arrested in September.

The police chief quit on Thursday, more than three months after Anwar appeared in court with a black eye, sparking international outrage. The chief took responsibility for the beating.

Party support for new appointment

Leaders of Mahathir's dominant United Malays National Organization (UMNO) rallied around the 73-year-old leader and his choice of a new deputy, who becomes heir apparent to Asia's elder statesman, in power since 1981.

Unassuming and known as an honest politician, Badawi, 59, was viewed as Mahathir's best option for averting a damaging split within UMNO as it girds for general elections that must be held by April 2000.

The two other leading candidates for the number two spot were ultimately seen as more politically risky, analysts said.

Education Minister Najib Abdul Razak, at 45, was seen as too young and having a more controversial background, while former finance minister Razaleigh Hamzah, who broke with Mahathir in 1987, had not yet fully won back the party's confidence.

Mahathir had wanted to leave the deputy post open until his party's next general election in June, when UMNO had been scheduled to choose a new deputy president to replace Anwar.

But the prime minister was pressed by party leaders to put an end to mounting political uncertainty and name a deputy.

In a clear sign that UMNO is gearing up for elections and wants to avoid in-fighting, Mahathir announced that the party would not choose new officers before the next general polls.

Leaders of other parties in Mahathir's Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition quickly backed Badawi.

"We feel the appointment will stabilize the political situation," Lim Keng Yaik, president of the Gerakan party, said. Other coalition leaders also voiced support.

Gerakan had broken ranks with the coalition this week and criticized the police for injuring Anwar while in custody.

Opposition leaders called on Badawi to restore confidence in the police, which has come under strong criticism in Anwar's sex and corruption case before the capital's High Court.

"I congratulate Abdullah on his appointment and hope he can bring to Malaysians a home ministry with a human face," parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang said.

"As the deputy prime minister and home minister, it will be appropriate for Datuk Seri Abdullah to clear the image of the police force," Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, was quoted by the official Bernama news agency as saying.

On Friday, Anwar sued Mahathir for unspecified damages over his injuries while in custody. The judge in Anwar's trial on Friday rejected for the second time his request to be released on bail.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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