Show Time for Malaysia's Anwar

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim went to court today in Kuala Lumpur on charges of sodomizing a former aide in a trial that to everybody but the government itself appears to be built on dubious allegations that were laid to derail the first realistic challenge to the ruling national coalition since the country was formed.

The trial takes place in an increasingly shaky country, with a sclerotic government faced with a challenge not only from the formal opposition but from a fast-growing Malay nationalist movement, an NGO called Perkasa, which looks as if it is seeking to tow the United Malays National Organisation, the leading ethnic political party, into a violent confrontation with the Chinese community over so-called Ketuanan Melayu, or ethnic Malays-first rights. Police warned against illegal gatherings in connection with the trial.

Anwar, most impartial observers feel, is virtually certain of being railroaded into jail on the current charges unless the judiciary shows some uncharacteristic backbone. If he is jailed, even a short sentence is likely to end his political career. The appeals process could take as long as two years, court observers say. Where that leaves the country is open to question. If he remains free on appeal, Anwar, who has led rallies all over the country in recent weeks to large crowds, could well return to his previous status as a political martyr, which he was during his previous jailing on similar charges in 1998.

At this point, there is no real viable opposition political successor to Anwar waiting in the wings. Attempts to groom them have fallen apart on political infighting. The opposition coalition has been reeling from a series of defections, missteps and intense pressure from the Barisan Nasional, the national ethnic ruling coalition, which has used its political power in a variety of ways.

The case against Anwar was briefly adjourned while his lawyers sought to review an earlier decision denying him access to prosecution evidence. A chaotic scrum of reporters, photographers and supporters greeted the 63-year-old head of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or the People's Justice Party as he and his lawyers entered the court.

At best, the charges appear to be a selective prosecution in a country in which a long string of top politicians have been complicit in a long string of crimes, not just of murder or assault but massive corruption. Najib Tun Razak, the current prime minister as defence minister engineered the purchase or lease of three French submarines that netted his best friend €117 million in commissions. That was just one of a variety of questionable defense purchases during his reign.

The aide, Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan, is acknowledged to have been photographed with and met with Najib after the supposed sodomy took place and before he filed the charges against Anwar. Dr Mohamed Osman, who examined the then 23-year old Saiful at Hospital Pusrawi Sdn Bhd on Jalan Tun Razak in Kuala Lumpur on June 28, 2008, filed a medical report that found no evidence of tearing or scarring that would indicate the youth had been sodomized. When Saiful went to another government hospital to obtain a diagnosis, doctors at that hospital refused to confirm that he had been sodomized as well. Nonetheless, Saiful filed the assault report four hours later at a nearby police kiosk.

Police later picked up the doctor and held him for three days, according to the website Malaysia Today, following his filing of the report that no assault had taken place. The doctor later went into hiding with his family. In an abbreviated interview with Asia Sentinel at the time, Deputy Inspector General of Police Ismail Omar confirmed that Dr Mohamad had been questioned, but said he had not been detained.

The charges against Anwar echo those that took place in 1998, when he was leading the charge against the government led by the United Malays National Organisation and the then-prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who had fired him as finance minister and deputy prime minister. The charges have been widely reported as spurious. The supposed victims of Anwar's sodomy later recanted all of the charges and said they had been tortured and beaten into making them.

Munawar Anees, an internationally respected biologist, was one of four men accused of having sex with Anwar. The others were Anwar's adoptive brother, his wife's driver and a fashion designer. Anees wrote extensively in a statutory declaration of the five days of torture, brutality and deprivation he had suffered prior to being forced into making the charge. The declaration was published in Asia Sentinel on Dec. 9. It can be found here.

The prosecution, faced with contradictions in testimony, repeatedly changed the dates and times the alleged sodomy had taken place. Nonetheless, Anwar was convicted on charges of abuse of power and sodomy and served six years in jail before Mahathir left office and his successor, Abdullah Ahman Badawi, came to power. The sodomy ruling was overturned by the courts in 2004.

Anwar was suspended from running for political office until 2008 because of the abuse of power charge. He almost immediately became a major force in Malaysian politics, cobbling together a disparate coalition of the Democratic Action Party, a largely Chinese left-of-center party, Parti Islam se-Malaysia, a fundamentalist Islamic party, and his own moderate, urban, largely Malay Parti Keadilan, and for the first time broke the national ruling coalition's 50-year two-thirds hold on parliamentary power.

The opposition leader was arrested a day after a nationally televised debate that most observers thought made his opponent look incompetent and out of touch. When Anwar refused to give a DNA sample, charging previous samples had been used in the spurious 1998 case against him, the Barisan pushed a bill through the Dewan Rakyat to allow police to collect samples in criminal cases without the consent of the suspect. Since that time, the charges against Anwar have been modified from forcible sodomy to consensual sex. Saiful, however, has never been charged although presumably he had consented to homosexual sex, a violation of Malaysian law. He has remained sequestered by law enforcement and unavailable to the press.