Anwar's Long-Delayed Trial to Begin

Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister leading Malaysia's resurgent opposition coalition, is to go on trial Wednesday on year-old sexual perversion allegations that once again will also put the country's judicial system on trial before a skeptical public.

In June 2008, a 24-year-old former aide to Anwar, Saiful Bukhari Azlan, filed the charges in a police kiosk at Kuala Lumpur Hospital, accusing the 61-year-old Anwar of forcibly sodomizing him in a posh neighborhood just minutes away from Parliament. Sodomy in Malaysia is punishable by caning and up to 20 years in prison.

The case has been heavily criticized. Almost immediately after the charges were filed by Saiful, the doctor who examined him said there was no evidence of anal intercourse. Anwar has supplied an alibi for the night in question. The charges have been reduced from forcible rape to consensual sex, which is illegal under Malaysian law, but Saiful hasn't been charged despite his claim that he was a participant.

Anwar has repeatedly said the charges were engineered to wreck his political career. Raja Petra Kamaruddin, the controversial editor of the popular internet political blog Malaysia Today, has repeatedly tied Saiful to Najib Tun Razak, who was deputy prime minister when the charges and was named prime minister in April. (It should be pointed out that Raja Petra has been notoriously unreliable on some of his charges, deeply well informed on others.)

Anwar, of course, has been here before. In September 1998, he was sacked by then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad from his post, ending his role as Mahathir's protégé and heir apparent. He was arrested soon after on similar charges of sodomy as well as corruption. As with the current round of charges, numerous discrepancies emerged and legal experts called the charges into question. Nonetheless, Anwar ultimately served six years before the charges were reversed after Mahathir left office.

An Anwar spokesman, Kim Quek, charged that “the conduct of the [current] case thus far seems to be aimed at humiliating him and ruining his reputation rather than fulfilling the requirements of the legal process.” Quek pointed out that some of the main players in the prosecution are the same as for Anwar's 1998 ordeal, including Gani Patail, then the prosecutor, who has since been elevated to Attorney General, and Musa Hassan, the police official in charge of the earlier investigation, who now holds the top police post. Anwar is how suing Patail for fabricating the evidence in the 1999 trial that put him behind bars.

Anwar's lawyers expect the current case to be argued on the basis of DNA evidence. On his arrest last July, Anwar refused to give a sample of DNA, claiming the evidence could be manipulated. However, in September last year, the government moved a new bill through the parliament that would allow it to compel suspects to give DNA samples. Anwar has continued to refuse, saying there is no case against him and that the sample will be used to fabricate evidence.

During his imprisonment on the 1998 charges, Anwar was beaten and kept in solitary confinement frequently. He was photographed during court proceedings with a black eye and bruises, and he continues to suffer back pains from the beatings. Human rights organizations from around the world condemned Anwar's treatment and criticized the charges as trumped up. Then US Vice President Al Gore insulted his Malaysian hosts during a visit to the country in 2000 by denouncing the trial as a mockery.

After his release Anwar returned to politics to lead the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition, made up of the ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party, the Islamic Parti Islam se-Malaysia and Anwar's own urban-based Malay Parti Keadilan Rakyat, to a strong victory in March 2008 elections, breaking the two-thirds hold on parliament enjoyed by the ruling National Coalition for the first time in the country's history and winning six statehouses. Since that time, the opposition has won five of six by-elections across the country.

Malaysia's judicial system has been repeatedly criticized as flawed and subject to political interference, going back to the 1980s when Mahathir fired most of the country's Supreme Court judges after a series of adverse decisions and engineered the appointment of more sympathetic jurists. In May of 2008, a royal commission appointed to investigate the system in the wake of a scandal concluded that the courts had been subject to widespread fixing of judicial appointments at the behest of politicians. The report included allegations of judicial abuses by Mahathir, who angrily left the United Malays National Organisation after former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi indicated he might be investigated on the charges.

Badawi has since been cashiered by his party amid the economic downturn and election losses; Mahathir was never investigated.

Likewise, Najib was the subject of widespread reports of tying him to the murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a 28-year-old Mongolian translator who was the jilted lover of one of Najib's closest friends, Abdjl Razak Baginda. Neither Najib nor his chief of staff was ever called as witnesses or asked to give evidence despite the fact that two of Najib's bodyguards were convicted of killing the woman, and one of them, in a confession that was never introduced at the trial, said they were to be paid up to RM100,00 for the murder.

After a flawed trial in which the prosecutor and judge were changed abruptly, evidence was suppressed and other oddities were noted, Razak was freed without having to put on a defense. He has since left the country. The two bodyguards were sentenced to hang. Their case is being appealed.