Time of trials

Published : Aug 15, 2008 00:00 IST

Malaysia: Anwar Ibrahim, now in the forefront of the opposition camp, finds himself fighting the regime on several fronts.

in Singapore

ANWAR IBRAHIM, Malaysias premier opposition campaigner, has been projecting himself as the potential leader of his countrys democratic destiny. By July 21, he found himself battling on several fronts, not just for the conventional political turf.

Commanding 82 seats, just over one-third in the 222-member House of Representatives, he was obviously far from accomplishing his immediate priority, indeed a stated agenda, of unseating Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. A no-trust resolution, sought to be moved by his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who is also the Leader of the Opposition, was not even admitted for debate in the House on July 14. More disconcerting to him was his new political and personal imperative of having to clear his name over fresh allegations that he had sexually assaulted a male aide.

As this report was written, no formal charges on this score were laid in court, but Anwar already had to endure detention for several hours. He was questioned by security agents, subjected to medical examination, and let off with a mandate to report back to police in the second half of August. Arrested in dramatic circumstances on July 16, Anwar was set free on police bail only on the following day. His lawyers described the manner of his arrest as nothing less than naked intimidation. The former Deputy Prime Minister was returning to his residence in Kuala Lumpur after making submissions against the countrys top police and law officers in the forum of the Anti-Corruption Agency.

A few weeks earlier, Anwar had formally accused these officials of masterminding and subjecting him to physical assault following his detention in 1998, shortly after his dismissal as Deputy Prime Minister. He was arrested at that time on a similar allegation of sexual misconduct. Significantly, that charge was eventually struck down in a landmark court order in 2004, after he spent several years in prison on a related case of a corrupt practice.

A tricky but commonsensical legal question, though not really in focus in the Malaysian political arena as of mid-July this year, is whether the judicial overturning of his conviction on the 1998 charge of sexual misconduct would not have had collateral legal implications in regard to his other conviction, on the related charge of a corrupt practice. He was accused of having abused his position as Deputy Prime Minister in the 1990s to try and scuttle the investigations that preceded his being brought to court in 1999 for an alleged sexual misconduct involving another man. Relevant, though, to this legal nicety was the fact that Anwar had completed his prison term in regard to the corrupt practice charge when he was acquitted and released on the 1998 sexual misconduct allegation.

Regardless of this legal maze, it was only a few weeks ago this year that he began demanding that responsibility be pinned in regard to the physical assault he was subjected to while in police custody in 1998. The consequences of that assault, often chronicled in international media circles as Anwars black eye and backache, were not so much the issue as this idea of fixing responsibility. And, it was in that context that he made the latest submissions to the Anti-Corruption Agency. This body was tasked with taking note of the submissions, in view of the delicacy of allowing a probe by the regular agencies that were still answerable to the very officials whom Anwar now wanted investigated.

As Anwar neared home after making these submissions on the afternoon of July 16, he and his lawyers were ambushed by security agents and taken to the police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. He had earlier told reporters of his intention to go to the police headquarters on his own by the deadline that had been set. The deadline was to expire in an hours time when Anwar was caught, and he had ample time to keep his word, Malaysian political sources said, denouncing the circumstances of his arrest.

More drama followed as Anwars supporters, cutting across ethnic lines in multi-cultural Malaysia, soon gathered outside the police headquarters. Meanwhile, his wife, who hurriedly left Parliament to meet him in detention, called for calm among his supporters. They heeded her call.

Anwar later indicated that the doctors who examined him in custody had insisted on taking his blood sample for a DNA test. He refused to subject himself to such a test, just as he had earlier refused to be photographed. His prime contention on this score was that the authorities were already in possession of his DNA profiling that was based on his blood sample taken during his pre-trial detention in 1998. No Malaysian should be treated in this manner, he said, and asked why he was being harassed as if he were a major criminal.

Malaysian Home Minister Hamid Albars counter-argument was that the security agencies wanted Anwar to give a fresh blood sample so that they could not be accused of manipulating the results of the tests on his old sample. Relevant to this line of reasoning is the fact that Anwar was indeed acquitted of the 1998 charge of sexual misconduct. And, importantly, the medical tests he was subjected to in that year formed the basis, at least partially, of that case.

Of political importance now is the comment from Lim Kit Siang, an opposition stalwart and the leader of the Democratic Action Party (DAP) that DNA doesnt change. He said that in response to the Home Ministers concern that the authorities should not be accused of manipulating Anwars old blood sample.

Shortly before his arrest and release on bail, he had even approached an Islamic court Malaysia is a Muslim-majority state to ascertain whether he was required to prove his innocence through any religious procedure. He did so, as the fresh allegations about his sexual misconduct appeared to gain public attention, despite his earlier acquittal on a similar charge years ago.

Commenting on the evolving political context in Malaysia in these circumstances, Lim told Frontline over the telephone that the latest police action against Anwar was provocative, unfair. The united opposition, known as the Peoples Pact and consisting of the DAP, the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and Anwars Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), would now decide future action on the basis of the course that the new police probe might take, Lim pointed out.

The overall political context of Anwars new personal predicament is not at all unfavourable to him, according to Malaysian party sources and opinion-makers. In a sense, this should account for his unexpected challenges. While Prime Minister Abdullah and others in his camp have dismissed allegations of a politically motivated campaign against Anwar, it is certainly not politics as usual in Malaysia.

Abdullah called the recent general elections hoping to secure a mandate to resolve economic and social issues, which included the sense of alienation among the ethnic Indian and Chinese minorities in the Malay-majority state. His gamble did not pay off as his ruling coalition fell from the commanding heights of a 90 per cent parliamentary majority and lost the two-thirds comfort level as well.

Not only that. Anwar galvanised the opposition despite his poll-time electoral disqualification, the result of his 1999 conviction on the corrupt practice case. He has, in fact, begun to carve out a niche role for himself as a political leader with an innovative agenda of protecting the prerogatives of the Malay-Muslim majority without diminishing the legitimate rights of the minorities. Anwar indicated to Frontline that in this regard he would be willing to address the grievances of ethnic Indians, as already articulated by the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf). He would, however, like to see Hindraf trim its sails to the cross-winds of demands from Malays and other ethnic groups as well.

Anwar is now at the forefront of the opposition camp, which includes a radical Muslim outfit with a new stated agenda of settling for a possible degree of Islamisation in state affairs rather than a maximalist degree. It is a question of the PAS, too, trimming its sails to the cross-winds of expectations from different ethnic and religious groups.

The latest charges may have delayed Anwars plans to enter Parliament and lead his anti-government campaign on the floor of the House. This is a matter of conventional wisdom, given that Anwars disqualification for elective office ended a few weeks after the general elections.

Taking note of a politically resurgent Anwar, the Prime Minister has ordered that the new allegations against the opposition campaigner should not be processed by the top police and law officials he seeks to move against. Politically far more important is Abdullahs categorical announcement that he would hand over the reins of power to Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak by mid-2010, well in time for the next general elections in the normal course. However, Najib, too, faces a stiff challenge, which emanates partly from personal allegations against him, all of which he has denied. The Malaysian political scene may, in these circumstances, favour the best marathon specialist rather than the best sprinter.

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