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AUGUST 21 - AUGUST 28, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 7/8

Roslan Rahman/AFP.
A decision not unexpected: Anwar waves to his supporters after being sentenced.

Rough Justice
The Anwar verdict is drawing scorn at home and abroad. Will Malaysia ever be the same?

For 14 months, it has been a near-daily ritual in downtown Kuala Lumpur. A police van pulls up to the Moorish-style Sultan Abdul Samad courthouse and noses through a crowd of journalists before it disgorges its prisoner: Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister. Anwar waves to the gathering and follows armed policemen into the building. Last Tuesday, that scene went according to script—but the drama inside had finally reached its climax. As police and court workers strained to peer inside the windows, Justice Arifin Jaka proclaimed Anwar guilty of sodomy. Asked to offer any mitigating circumstances before he was sentenced, Anwar accused the judge of merely following a "preordained script." The judge replied: "You cannot attack my judgment." Anwar continued a fiery denunciation of the trial, and soon his relatives within the courtroom started chanting Islamic invocations about Allah and ultimate justice. Arifin finally blurted: "You are a sick man." More arguments followed, and Anwar finished by telling the judge: "I wish you well with your conscience and religious beliefs."

Returning to the police vehicle, Anwar waved to supporters outside the building with more determination than ever. His wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail had tears in her eyes. But Anwar's odysseys to and from the courtroom were over: Arifin sentenced him to nine years in prison, on top of the six-year term he received last year in his first trial, on abuse-of-power charges. The one-time heir apparent to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad could be staring at prison walls until 2014, barring time off for good behavior—or an earthquake in Malaysian politics.

In delivering his verdict, Arifin said he was "satisfied that the prosecution had proved its case," but little such satisfaction could be found outside the court. The verdict was condemned by opposition parties, the Malaysian Bar Council and lawyers who observed the trial. "It is very painful to see this," said Param Cumaraswamy, the Kuala Lumpur-based United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers. "Most of the public has now lost confidence in the judiciary."

Foreign observers were also outraged. The International Commission of Jurists called the decision "politically motivated." Australia, New Zealand, the European Union and even the World Bank expressed dismay. U.S. Vice President Al Gore said that Anwar had endured a "show trial" that was "designed to remove Anwar from the political arena indefinitely." For his part, Prime Minister Mahathir responded that Anwar had received a fair trial. "The court thinks that is the right punishment," he said.

Until judgment day, some legal analysts had considered it possible that Anwar might be acquitted, considering the quality of the evidence—or, as is usual in common-law jurisdictions like Malaysia, given a sentence that would run concurrently with the earlier term. The prosecution twice had to change the dates of the alleged sexual misdeeds—in one case after defense lawyers noted that the building in which they were supposed to have occurred did not exist at the time. The case rested heavily on the evidence of a single witness, Azizan Abu Bakar, a former driver for Anwar's wife, who contradicted himself several times during his cross-examination. "This witness says one thing today and another thing tomorrow," Justice Arifin himself said at one point. Harun Hashim, a retired Supreme Court judge who now teaches law at the International Islamic University, said during the trial that he was "surprised the judge called for the defense—I would have thrown it out long ago."

Anwar told reporters after the verdict that Arifin was "only following orders"—a reference to his repeated contention that his legal troubles are a political conspiracy masterminded by Mahathir. Anwar's lawyers had demanded that Mahathir answer that charge during the trial; Arifin denied the request. Anwar's adopted brother and co-defendant Sukma Darmawan Sasmitaat Madja was convicted of sodomizing Azizan and abetting Anwar, and was sentenced to six years and four strokes of the cane. Anwar was spared corporal punishment because of his age. He turned 53 last Thursday.

Despite admonitions from the government, 1,000 people congregated near the courtroom the day the verdict was delivered, and eight opposition figures were arrested for defying a ban on assembling at the courthouse. Police broke up a demonstration of 300 people three days later. Several more events were planned for the weekend. "We wanted to see how justice is done in Malaysia," said a participant in the verdict-day protest, who declined to give his name. Many Malaysians seemed stunned at the severity of the sentence. "Maybe Anwar is guilty," said Sharif Alwi, 35, a restaurant owner in the northern state of Perak, "but as Muslims we cannot be so vengeful." Said S. Ramakrishnan, a lecturer on finance and accounting at a Malaysian university: "It is a political verdict, and Mahathir is out to finish Anwar off for good."

Anwar may not be finished, but he will be out of the public eye for quite a while. Even with the normal time off for good behavior, his combined sentences will keep him in jail until at least 2009. As a convicted criminal, he will be forbidden from holding public office for five years after that, by which time he will be 67. His brightest prospect is that Mahathir will somehow pass from the scene and he will return in triumph as a martyr figure. That possibility seems remote at the moment. The Prime Minister's ruling coalition did lose ground to opposition parties in last November's legislative elections, and public dissatisfaction over Anwar's treatment was clearly a factor. Yet the coalition is still firmly in control of the legislature, and the continuing recovery of the Malaysian economy can only help its position.

As Anwar headed back to his jail cell last week to count down the long days that lie ahead, he did have cause for hope. His predicament has so troubled Malaysians that whoever succeeds Mahathir may be under pressure to revisit the case. And Mahathir, who is now 74, may not then be in a position to prevent his former deputy's rehabilitation. Anwar's days in court may be over, but his career in politics may just be getting interesting.

With reporting by Mageswary Ramankrishnan and Ken Stier/Kuala Lumpur

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