The Malaysian government has bungled anew with the fresh sodomy charges it has brought against the jailed former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim. He and his adopted brother, Sukma Dermawan, are charged with sodomy of his wife’s driver, Azizan Abu Bakar, in 1992; earlier, in the corruption charges for which he was convicted, the government said the sodomy took place in 1994 but could not prove it.
When the defence produced defence evidence which, among other things, showed that the apartment where the offence supposedly occurred did not exist on the day in question in 1992, the Attorney-General, Mohtar Abdullah, promptly amended the charge to a three month period in 1993. Mr Justice Ariffin Jaka, who tries the case, was brought in from the civil courts, as Mr Justice Augustine Paul was in the corruption charges.
The trial is held in public, but reporters are forbidden to report anything other than the court proceedings. The judge has decreed that no extraneous statements - like Anwar’s statements to reporters, and other statements not strictly adduced in court - may be reported. The seemingly hamfisted handling of the case has led to a series of appeals, including one to disqualify the judge, but it continues without the appeals being heard.
Why the government decided to proceed with this case, when the corruption conviction, if upheld on appeal, would remove Anwar from active politics until 2008, when he would be 61, is not revealed, especially since it would redound unfavourably on the Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamed, and his harrassed administration.
The reduced public interest in the trial, with the large and vociferous crowds of the earlier trial markedly absent, does not help the government. The anti-government demonstrations have moved away from the plight of the former deputy prime minister to the larger issue of an opposition coalition to unseat the ruling coalition which has governed the country since 1955.
With general elections expected within the next two months, and government ministers focusing their attacks on the opposition, the country is easing gradually into thinly-disguised electioneering. Dr Mahathir said this week that electioneering would be short to prevent the public peace from being disturbed. That it was he, and not the chairman of the Elections Commission, who said this raised many eyebrows.
Elsewhere in Malaysian politics, opposition politicans are engaged in trying to build an electoral coalition through which to challenge Mahathir. In Anwar’s absence, and with the major opposition parties, including the Islamic party PAS, intellectually unprepared for victory, this is proving a difficult task.
It is within this framework that the Anwar trial begins afresh. But the fundamental cultural overview has however changed: the Malay, with his finely honed sense of justice, condemns the Prime Minister and the ruling coalition for humiliating a leader before destroying him. He would not have objected if Anwar had been removed abruptly; but he did when the Prime Minister decided to humiliate him as well. That backfired when public sympathy quickly switched to his once-designated successor and protege.
Charging him for sodomy adds to the humiliation the Malay abhors. Having it so close to the general election can rebound on the governing coalition. But the Prime Minister seems confident he can humiliate the man and still retain the confidence of the Malay community.
As matters stand, his governing coalition should hold on to power; what is in doubt is whether the two-thirds majority it has always had will remain, and how many states the opposition might seize beyond the one it now holds. Meanwhile, the farce continues.
Muslimedia: June 16-30, 1999