Tue, 01 Aug 2000

Rebuilding of trust through a new Cabinet urged

By Alvin Ung

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP): When prosecutors moved against Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim two years ago, they sent hundreds of police officers, dozens of army rangers and an elite weapons squad to arrest him.

It was the opening of a judicial drama that has shaken the political grip of long-governing Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Last year, Anwar was convicted of corruption and given a six- year jail sentence. This Friday, he is scheduled to hear the judge's verdict in a year-old trial on sodomy charges.

Anwar and his supporters say both cases have been nothing but a conspiracy led by Mahathir because he considered his deputy a political threat.

"The prime minister was maestro in the entire scheme," Anwar said in closing arguments July 18.

Both trials opened in the glare of publicity, but domestic and international interest has waned in recent months.

Yet Anwar, the jailed politician, has successfully used his plight to unleash an undercurrent of public opinion that has swept through Malaysia and reached Mahathir, master of the country for 19 years.

"The trial has effectively placed the entire Malay society on trial," said Bruce Gale, a political analyst with Singapore-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy. "You either believe Anwar did it, or you don't. This is one of the great divides in Malay politics."

Pared to its essence, the sodomy trial hinges on either the word of the former deputy prime minister and his alleged victim, Azizan Abu Bakar, an ex-chauffeur for Anwar's family.

A guilty verdict means imprisonment of up to 20 years and possibly a whipping. Even if Anwar is found innocent, he will be imprisoned until 2003 and banned from public office for an additional five years because of the corruption conviction.

Both charges were filed after Mahathir abruptly fired Anwar in September 1998 following a year of widening differences over how to cope with the Asian economic crisis.

Critics of Anwar said he had become too ambitious and coveted the top job. Anwar has claimed that his urgings for reforms threatened Mahathir's cronies and corruption in the system.

For Mahathir, a guilty verdict would justify his sacking the man who had been his heir apparent.

Firing Anwar incensed much of the country's normally placid Malay population, the dominant ethnic group and Mahathir's power base, resulting in thousands taking to the streets.

The subsequent criminal charges of corruption and sodomy -- plus a beating Anwar suffered in custody at the hands of the national police chief -- triggered further outrage and brought protests from local and international rights groups.

The joint trial of Anwar and his adopted brother, Sukma Darmawan, alleged to have been Anwar's sex accomplice, began in June 1999.

But it immediately became mired in controversy when prosecutors waffled over the date of the alleged offense.

They initially said Anwar attacked Azizan in Sukma's Kuala Lumpur apartment in May 1994. Then they changed the date to May 1992, citing a typographical error.

But after the defense submitted an alibi proving that the apartment had not been fully constructed until 1993, the prosecution accused Anwar of committing the act "one night between the month of January and March 1993 at about 7:45."

The defense called the chauffeur, Azizan, an avaricious liar parroting tales fed to him by Mahathir's associates. The defense team submitted alibis for most of the 90 evenings in question.

They also subjected Azizan to a withering cross-examination, during which he conceded that he was asked by police to change the date of the alleged sodomy to 1993.

"The charges against Anwar Ibrahim are nothing more than palpably fabricated and false," Anwar attorney Christopher Fernando said.

In reply, prosecutors said those objections weren't crucial.

"Azizan would have to be forgiven for not remembering the dates," Abdul Gani said. "However, about one thing he is consistent -- he had been sodomized by both the accused parties."

The result of the fierce, often personal attacks, mounted by both the defense and the prosecution -- and Anwar and Mahathir -- has diminished the respect of the Malaysian public for their institutions, Gale said.

"The cumulative effect of the Anwar trial is that Malaysians are more cynical now than ever before," Gale said.

"This cynicism exists whether or not you believe Anwar is guilty. Both sides flung mud on each other, and neither came out looking particularly good."

During last November's elections, the fundamentalist Pan- Malaysian Islamic Party capitalized on the discontent by tripling its seats in Parliament and taking control of a second of Malaysia's 13 states.

The gains came at the expense of Mahathir's United Malays National Organization, whose popular vote fell to its lowest in decades.

The result has been to split ethnic Malay political power between a party that represents the old guard and one espousing a brand of religious politics that would be anathema to moderate Malays and the substantial ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.

Mahathir has made little public reference to Anwar in recent months.

Instead, his rhetoric has been filled with attacks on the Pan- Malaysian Islamic Party, following the kind of security scare unthinkable in the pre-Anwar-trial era: a raid on military armories by an obscure Muslim cult preaching holy war.

The cultists, who killed two hostages, were taken into custody and the weapons recovered. The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party has denied any links.

But Mahathir has claimed that many of the extremists belong to the party and threaten the stability of Malaysia.