Final Verdict

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ANTHONY SPAETHKuala Lumpur, Malaysia's languid, palm tree-and-skyscraper capital, had rarely experienced such tension. All eyes were on the high court building, where the fate of Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia's former Deputy Prime Minister, would be delivered following a 77-day trial on charges of corruption and sexual misconduct. It had been the longest trial in Malaysian history.
The court session last Wednesday began in dramatic fashion as a defense counsel asked that Justice Augustine Paul, who served as both judge and jury in the case, disqualify himself for having recently likened one of Anwar's lawyers to an animal, adding we should shoot him. But Justice Paul went forward with the verdict, proclaiming Anwar guilty on four counts of corruption and announcing an unexpectedly severe sentence of six years in jail, not including the almost seven months Anwar has already spent in incarceration.

Anwar's family remained unemotional, even 12-year-old daughter Nurul Ilham, though no one had expected such a stiff sentence. Then the former heir apparent to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad delivered a lengthy statement, proclaiming calmly but forcefully: I have been dealt a judgment that stinks to high heaven. While still in the courtroom Anwar's family was jeered by policemen, who laughed and flashed the thumbs-down sign--and that started the tears flowing. We expected it, said Anwar's sister Farison Ismail, but we just can't take it.

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Outside, police made a frantic effort to prevent photographers from getting a shot of Anwar leaving the courthouse. Then the scene turned really ugly. Thousands of pro-Anwar demonstrators were sprayed with chemical-laced water that burned the skin and caused coughing, similar to the effect of tear gas. Police chased them and beat them with sticks, declaring, with unintended irony: Get out of here. This is an area of repression. When Tian Chua, a vice president of the political party recently formed by Anwar's wife Wan Azizah Ismail, sat on the road to block the advance of an anti-riot truck mounted with a water cannon, police beat him and dragged him by the shirt, semi-conscious, into a nearby van. (Tian is now formally under investigation for attempting to commit suicide.) Curious onlookers from a local bank branch were attacked by police. Fauzi, a protester who worked as an investment consultant before Malaysia's economic downturn (and who doesn't want his full name reported), put it this way: This is not Malaysia anymore. This is Mahathir Country.
That it is, as it has been for most of the past 18 years. And though the 73-year-old Prime Minister was recently hospitalized with a serious lung infection, Mahathir Country remains one tough and tightly battened-down place. On government-controlled television, news reports of Anwar's sentencing contained no footage of the police action, but they did show the damage attributed to his supporters. The New Straits Times commented: Prompt action by the police ensured a smooth flow of traffic and public order. The royal commission investigating Anwar's jailhouse beating by then police commissioner Rahim Noor released its report on the same day--recommending that Rahim be charged over the assault--apparently to temper the public's anger over Anwar's sentence. Government officials were uncharacteristically silent when asked to comment on Anwar's verdict and sentence, including Mahathir himself. Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, Anwar's successor-designate, did go on television to tell the nation: The judgment was today, and it is a court judgment. So let's just accept it.

Malaysians are used to interpreting such comments as commands from on high. But if you believe the writing on the placards in Kuala Lumpur last week--the people are the judge, read one--some of them may no longer be so quick to comply. There is a sense that something is terribly wrong with the whole system of government, says Lim Kit Siang, secretary-general of Malaysia's opposition Democratic Action Party. Says Hishamuddin Yahaya, acting secretary-general of the Islamic Party of Malaysia, another opposition group: In general, Malays tend to forgive and forget very quickly, but I don't think that will happen in this case.

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The international community reacted swiftly. Amnesty International labeled Anwar a prisoner of conscience. John Malott, a former U.S. ambassador to Malaysia, called him the world's most prominent political prisoner. Philippine President Joseph Estrada encouraged Anwar to be unwavering in the cause he is fighting for. Said British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook: Aspects of the case give real cause for concern, in particular the relationship between the executive and judiciary in Malaysia.
Follow-up protests were held in Kuala Lumpur over the weekend, but the more important question is whether Malaysians will vote for change in the next general elections, which must be held by mid-2000. In the aftermath of the verdict, it's not difficult to find people who say they will. This is about justice, insists Azhari, a Kuala Lumpur blue collar worker. I never voted before, but I'll be voting for Keadilan--shorthand for the Parti Keadilan Nasional, or National Justice Party, recently formed by Wan Azizah Ismail, Anwar's ophthalmologist wife. But to many voters Mahathir continues to represent stability. The Chinese are still predominantly supporting Mahathir, says an ethnic-Chinese accountant on the island state of Penang, not because we like him but because he is good for business.

Mahathir's United Malays National Organization (UMNO) has dominated Malaysian politics since independence by championing the cause of the Malay majority. Normally it would go into any such election with a massive advantage. But it isn't clear whether traditional electoral computations remain valid after the tumultuous events of the past seven-and-a-half months: Anwar's dismissal; the arrest and beating of the nation's second most powerful figure; a trial that tried to portray him as a sodomist and philanderer, complete with a semen-stained mattress dragged into court. (The evidence was discredited by the defense, and the prosecution later amended the sex charges.) Not to mention the creation of a new political movement calling for an end to nepotism and cronyism and headed by a wronged wife whose rallying cries are reform and justice. True, Anwar and Mahathir once were part of the same clique ruling Malaysia. But Mahathir, who deserves credit for building Malaysia into one of the developing world's success stories, increasingly resembles a tragic hero well past the third act of the drama. He has become afraid of losing power, says Puzi, a village shopkeeper in Perak state who has spent many evenings reading reformasi websites on the Internet for news about the Anwar trial. He rules like someone drunk with power.

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Some political analysts in Kuala Lumpur are betting that Mahathir, health permitting, will call early elections, possibly in August. By then, the hubbub over the Anwar trial may well have faded. Economic news should be upbeat for the next few months: Malaysia is starting to rebound from the Asian financial crisis, and the government is predicting GDP growth of 1% this year. But the recovery is vulnerable: the controversial capital controls that Mahathir instituted last September have, despite many contrary predictions, brought the financial stability that he desired. But the controls also encourage about $10 billion of foreign investment to remain inside the country until Sept. 1. As soon as fund managers and corporate finance directors have the option of removing their money without penalty, the result could be an exodus of billions.
The most compelling argument for an early election, however, would be to strike while the opposition is unprepared. UMNO, which holds power in a coalition with 13 smaller partners, is less a ruling party than a permanent governing machine. The two main opposition parties--the Islamic Party of Malaysia (better known by its Malay acronym, pas) and the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP)--have only a tiny minority in the federal parliament, where UMNO's coalition enjoys a two-thirds majority. Power struggles tend to take place within UMNO--Mahathir faced his last big one in 1987--but not in general elections. No independent party has ever won more than 6% of the national vote. UMNO wields formidable political clout; opposition politicians fear it will try to secure votes by resorting to threats, like withholding state spending to districts that vote the wrong way. Mahathir edged close to that tactic in a speech in Sabah last month, before a state election there. Can Dr. Wan Azizah come up with any money to help the university in Kedah? he asked. (Azizah has threatened to run against Mahathir in Kedah.)

Earlier this month, Azizah announced a coalition that joined her party to pas, DAP and the social democratic Parti Rakyat Malaysia, or Malaysian People's Party. It's an unstable grouping: pas wants Malaysia to adopt Islamic law, the greatest fear of DAP's predominantly Chinese supporters. Azizah's own National Justice Party is only a few weeks old. The coalition says it will campaign jointly, but its unity will be tested when the parties take on the potentially divisive task of carving up constituencies.

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But when Azizah journeys to the countryside to spread Anwar's word, many of these fears seem insignificant. She travels in a maroon, eight-seater family van, accompanied by a caravan of dusty sub- compacts and red-and-white taxis. Sometimes she takes along daughter Nurul Izzah, an attractive 18-year-old college student, who Mom admits is a crowd-puller. Azizah starts speeches with the remark: I know some of you have come to see Izzah. You can look, but no funny business.
She arrives at an abandoned rubber plantation two hours outside the capital, and 50,000 people are waiting to hear her. She tells them how Anwar prays alone on the cement floor of his cell, and she reads messages written by him from jail calling for reformasi. Azizah reminds them that, as Finance Minister, Anwar approved the funding for the jail that now houses him. She describes the six steel doors she and the children go through on their weekly visits, and the 13 he must pass. Azizah plans twice-a-week speeches for the next two months. I can see the odds, she says. They are formidable.

If Azizah's roadtrips seem oddly familiar, there's good reason. The Philippines' Corazon Aquino started her campaign against Ferdinand Marcos more than 14 years ago in remarkably similar circumstances: the fractious coalition, the ragtag convoys, the concern that contesting elections might be futile. In Aquino's case, the electioneering paid off. For Azizah, the road is less certain. Malaysian politics are now characterized by many unknowns, says Rustam Sani, a pro-Anwar political analyst. Even Mahathir doesn't know how much support he has in the country or the party. But as Anwar learned once again last week, no one ever gained power by underestimating Mahathir.

Reported by John Colmey and David Liebhold/Kuala Lumpur and Kim Gooi/Penang

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