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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

SEPTEMBER 24, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 38

A Storm Over Arsenic
And a possible boost for the opposition

The trials of Malaysia's ousted deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, which once captured big headlines worldwide, have in recent months settled into a quiet, almost routine part of Malaysian life. Sentenced in April to six years' jail for "abuse of power," Anwar now faces a slew of sodomy charges. While some sensational accusations and counter-accusations have predictably surfaced, much of the current hearings have been devoted to necessary but tedious legal jousting between the prosecution and defense. On Sept. 10, however, drama returned to the wood-paneled courtroom. "I wish to draw your attention to certain matters which go beyond the significance of this trial," Anwar's lead lawyer in the sodomy case, Karpal Singh, said solemnly to Judge Arifin Jaka. Karpal revealed that a dangerously high level of the potent poison arsenic had been found in Anwar's urine. "He's in jeopardy of his life," said Karpal. "If he's being slowly poisoned, something must be done about it."

Something was. Judge Arifin postponed the trial indefinitely. Anwar was taken to a university hospital in Kuala Lumpur and admitted. He lodged a police report, part of which read: "I regret that the conspiracy to topple me has not been limited to just political action but now also involves physical moves to poison me." (Anwar and his lawyers have long asserted that the various legal actions against him are politically motivated.) Hold on, responded government officials. Inspector-General of Police (IGP) Norian Mai said his people were looking into the matter but that investigations would take time. Attorney-General Mohtar Abdullah warned Anwar and his lawyers not to leap to conclusions. Said Mohtar: "It could be accidental poisoning through food and drink consumed not only in prison but in the court's precincts."

No way, say Anwar's family and friends. They say they have been suspicious for some time that all was not well with him. Though Anwar maintained a good appetite, he was losing weight (about nine kilos since his arrest Sept. 20 last year) as well as hair on his head. "We were advised that we should have him checked," says Mohamed Ezam Nor, Youth chief of Parti Keadilan Nasional (National Justice Party), which is headed by Anwar's wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. So on Aug. 18 a pseudonymous urine sample was sent to Gribbles Pathology in K.L., which passed it on to its head laboratory in Melbourne, Australia. Karpal said the pathologist's report showed a level of arsenic some 77 times higher than normal. A senior K.L. doctor told Asiaweek that while the level of arsenic was not high enough to kill Anwar immediately, he could have developed more serious symptoms such as abdominal pains, and that prolonged exposure to the arsenic would have led eventually to death.

Some officials have expressed skepticism about the arsenic, notably Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. He wondered loudly why Anwar waited weeks to tell the court and to seek medical care. "If I know I have been poisoned I will act immediately, take medicine and so on," Mahathir said. The arsenic revelation was made on the eve of APEC, of the 12th Commonwealth Law Conference in K.L. and of the Sept. 11 sentencing of Canadian journalist Murray Hiebert for contempt of court in an unrelated case. Indeed, Mahathir brought up the issue during the Law Conference, saying that international lawyers and judges regarded developing countries as "being disposed toward poisoning and plotting the overthrow of political rivals." For his part, Ezam told Asiaweek "we knew only two days before we informed the court," an assertion the independent Bar Council echoes. Its president, R.R. Chelvarajah, said the Council "has verified that the pathology report dated Sept. 8 was only received by Anwar's lawyers on the evening of Sept. 9 and presented to the learned judge on Sept. 10. The allegations of vacillation or delays are therefore unfounded."

Whether anyone connected with officialdom had anything to do with the arsenic or not, the episode may hurt the government. It reminds Malaysians that a year ago Anwar was struck while in custody by the former IGP, Rahim Noor. It puts the spotlight back on Anwar's controversial sacking and arrest. And it gives Keadilan and its opposition allies a boost. "The psychology is that people tend to distrust the administration," says former opposition MP James Wong Wing On. "And in politics, perception is everything." Are these factors sufficient to persuade Mahathir to postpone general elections expected in the next couple of months? Experts are divided, given the improved economic climate. In the end, that may count for the most.

With additional reporting by Lim Shu Ling

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

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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