Anwar Tries To Face Down His Accusers

Malaysia’s long-suffering opposition, which four months ago glimpsed its first chance in the 50-year history of the country to take power, has to figure out where it goes from here in the wake of charges by a volunteer in the office of Anwar Ibrahim that the opposition politician had sodomized him.

Anwar, the opposition coalition’s most charismatic figure, had expected to stroll through a by-election for parliament sometime in the next few weeks and be handed formal leadership of the opposition. The next step would be a no-confidence vote to sink Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and the ruling Barisan Nasional, a move that would give Anwar the top job and cap a remarkable political comeback for the high-flying politician who was derailed a decade ago by sexual abuse and corruption charges. Now he first has to clear up allegations, justified or not, that have dogged him for a decade.

A former deputy prime minister and finance minister, Anwar has responded to the charges with a furious series of countercharges, lodging a formal complaint against police chief Musa Hassan and Attorney-general Abdul Gani Patail and claiming that intelligence reports from a "neighboring country" indicate that assassins were planning to kill him.

On Tuesday night he told a rally of some 15,000 supporters that he was undeterred in his quest to derail the BN. "The BN government cannot be trusted to manage the economy of this country because there is too much corruption," he told supporters, according to published reports. "Time is up, you get out, let us move in!" Anwar was reported as saying.

Anwar’s lawyers have also filed defamation charges against the accuser, Saiful Bukhari Azlan, 23, who last Saturday filed the police report accusing Anwar of forcibly sodomizing him in an apartment in Damansara Heights, a posh neighborhood minutes away from parliament. Doctors from Kuala Lumpur Hospital have submitted Saiful's medical report to the police for further investigation.

Immediately after Saiful’s charges became known, Anwar headed for the Turkish embassy, alleging he could be murdered. His presence in the embassy, reportedly one of several that offered sanctuary, strained Malaysia’s relations with Turkey. Irritation is also rising with the US embassy after US State Department spokesman Tom Casey issued a statement urging that any legal action “would not be anything that was a politically motivated investigation or prosecution,” thus calling up memories of 2000, when then-US Vice President Al Gore denounced Anwar’s previous trial for sodomy as a “mockery.”

The new charges seriously complicate Anwar’s plans to contest the by-election. Anwar has predicted he would take over as prime minister in September, sweeping the coalition that has ruled the country since 1957 from power.

However, Anwar must not just win that as-yet unnamed by-election but win it by a landslide. He might already have been facing political headwinds over the fact that the government is attempting to cushion the effect of the removal of petrol subsidies, a major thorn in the side of the public. A highly-publicized attempt to push through a no-confidence motion by the Sabah Progressive Party, a presumed ally, against Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi fizzled, with members of the party accusing the leadership of selling out.

Certainly Anwar’s difficulties give the BN some badly needed breathing space after it lost its two-thirds majority in the March 8 elections for the first time since independence. The defeat came after the once-impregnable political machine suffered through a marathon series of scandals, several of them involving Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, who is under fire for unsubstantiated claims over his and his wife’s supposed involvement in the gruesome 2006 murder of Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu and for reports of profiteering on defense contracts. There have also been persistent and convincing charges of endemic corruption in the country’s judiciary.

Anwar has named Najib Razak the culprit behind the alleged conspiracy to defame him with sodomy allegations. "You know we will announce a by-election this week. I will contest in the by-election, the police knew that," he told AFP. Najib has denied Anwar’s allegations, as has Prime Minister Badawi, who was actually instrumental in getting the charges reversed from Anwar’s 1999 sexual perversion conviction.

In any case, Anwar and his party have charged that Saiful was a mole planted by the BN. Photos of Saiful with government officials have been published in local media and the Internet. One showed the alleged victim with Khairil Annas Jusoh, one of Najib's aides, at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Others featured Shahrir Abdul Samad, domestic trade and consumer affairs minister, and Azalina Othman, tourism minister.

The youth’s family, however, countered that Saiful was a student leader and that it was normal for student leaders to meet with top government officials.

The local media have been cautious this time. In 1998, when Anwar was first arrested on sodomy brought by both his step-brother and his driver, the government-controlled press pronounced Anwar guilty before the trial even began. The New Straits Times suffered a sharp decline in circulation as a boycott was organized to protest against the paper’s biased reports.

Those charges were laid after former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad dumped Anwar as finance minister and deputy premier. Anwar spent six years in prison before being released after the sexual perversion charges were reversed by a Malaysian court.

The public seems to be regarding the current charges with suspicion. One longtime observer in Kuala Lumpur said that ethnic Malays, the constituency of the dominant pro-government United Malays National Organisation, are furious with the party and many regard the charges as fabricated. According to a readers' poll on the local news website, Malaysiakini, 94 percent of 900 respondents believe that the report is a "political conspiracy," although the site draws mostly opposition supporters and the results are likely to be skewed.

The BN so far has denied any involvement in Saiful's report.

"What Anwar is saying (about his life being in danger) may not be the gospel truth. We will have to confirm the validity of his claim. He is a good orator and prone to dramatics," Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar told local media. "It makes no difference if the person who complained against him is a VIP... Justice must be done to ensure the people feel safe and protected."

Ezam Mohd Nor, a former Anwar loyalist, told reporters: "Anwar should not make assumptions of a conspiracy because it is also not logical for the government to use the same method against the same man twice just to stop him from contesting for a parliamentary seat."

Ezam rejoined UMNO after falling out with Azmin Ali, a PKR vice-president who is widely seen to be Anwar's closest confidant. A political insider suggested that he may be behind this fresh round of sodomy allegations but he has vehemently denied it. "Maybe Ezam is trying to score points with his new paymasters," an insider told Asia Sentinel.

Meanwhile, investors are jittery. The Kuala Lumpur Composite Index (KLCI) plummeted 19.87 points or 1.7 percent, Forbes reported Wednesday. "The Malaysian market is being dragged down as the latest political drama has taken political uncertainties to a new level,'' Phua Kwee Hock, an analyst at SJ Securities, told Forbes. “The local market can be expected to drift listlessly in the coming months.''