Whose Trial?

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ANTHONY SPAETHAnwar Ibrahim sits in an old-fashioned, wooden-doweled dock in the Kuala Lumpur courthouse where his fate will be determined. The former Deputy Prime Minister says his health is fine, though he has clearly lost weight. There is no sign of the black eye he received in jail, or the neck brace he wore during an arraignment last month. The charges against him, which could send him to jail for decades, fall into two categories: five relate to sexual acts, the details of which have been lubriciously related in local newspapers. The other five accuse Anwar of corrupt practices--the second most powerful man in the country allegedly instructed the police to pressure into silence two people accusing him of sexual misdeeds.His former boss, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, hasn't ventured near the courthouse. But he too is in the dock, figuratively speaking, along with the entire Mahathir Era: a 17-year reign of impressive ambitions and achievements, along with some awkward political compromises. Mahathir is an assertive leader of a very Southeast Asian sort: enlightened in his goals of economic development, dependent on party politics and elections for power--and resolute in his control of other democratic institutions, such as the media and judiciary. For nearly all of his years in power, Mahathir's toughness earned him the admiration of his people.And then comes that unique moment, which no one can ever quite foresee, when the people change their minds. For Indonesia's Suharto, the triggers were high rice prices and riots provoked by his soldiers in the capital. For Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, it was the body of murdered rival Benigno Aquino splayed on an airport tarmac. Mahathir, 72, perceived his once-trusted deputy and heir apparent as a challenger to power. What followed could well turn out to be Mahathir's turning point. He accused Anwar of promiscuity with women and, more shockingly in largely Islamic Malaysia, with men. He fired him, personally questioned the alleged sex partners and then informed Malaysians, through a compliant press, that he was satisfied of Anwar's guilt. The Prime Minister became investigator, prosecutor, assignment editor and judge. When Anwar was hauled from a police van in late September with a black eye, Malaysians reacted as if the entire country had been sucker-punched.Anwar now has a daily court appointment before a judge who could sentence him to 14 years in jail for any of the first four charges being tried. But Mahathir is facing a bigger and more important jury--a public that appears to be growing weary of his I-know-best rule. Last week Anwar declared himself the chief witness, and a decidedly hostile one, in that public trial. He accused Mahathir of feathering his own nest--an ornate official residence is being built at the cost, according to Anwar, of $53 million--and those of his cronies. In a diary written in prison and posted last week on the Internet, Anwar alleged top-level corruption, naming names and detailing amounts. He characterized Mahathir as megalomaniacal, paranoid, isolated, a grumpy old man who views his people with contempt. His ambition, according to Anwar, has been to install himself as the supreme feudal lord of the Malays.PAGE 1  |    |    |    |  
 
A potentially more potent challenge to the Prime Minister is coming from below. Customarily compliant Malaysians from all locales and classes are risking arrest and possible job loss for the satisfaction of standing on a pavement, en masse, calling for Mahathir's resignation and for reformasi, an overhaul of Malaysia's political system. Few would have dared mount such protests, or even conceived of the need, a few months back. Pro-Anwar rallies have drawn tens of thousands of people. The Internet has helped encourage skepticism, as several websites dispute the sex charges against Anwar. The Prime Minister's personal pollster reportedly told the boss that his approval rating has plunged 70% among Malays, the country's majority ethnic group. Says an official in the Prime Minister's department: Only a few civil servants still support him.Journalists are calling the Anwar affair Malaysia's Trial of the Century, but that increasingly sounds like an understatement. The beating Anwar suffered in prison may have cost the 51-year-old up to 40% of his total hearing, according to his physicians. But it seems to have opened the ears, eyes and mouths of millions of Malaysians. Anwar's trial is the focal point of what threatens to become a political revolution for the country--and possibly more. According to Rustam Sani, a respected newspaper columnist who was dismissed from his job last month for writing articles perceived to be critical of the government: What we are seeing is a cultural transformation.The trial's first week was at once dramatic, farcical and ominous. On Day One, journalists staked out the courthouse before sunrise, joined by representatives of foreign embassies and concerned nongovernmental organizations. Surrounding intersections were protected by hundreds of police armed with tear gas and M-16 assault rifles. Anwar supporters were forewarned of trouble by Kuala Lumpur's police chief, and only small clutches showed up. Within the court, some 20 family members were on hand to greet Anwar and feed him chocolates and biscuits. At the start of the proceedings, attorneys and presiding judge Augustine Paul struggled to conduct the proceedings in Bahasa Malaysia, hewing to an insistent courtroom sign: use the national language. Paul refused to give official observer status to representatives of human-rights groups, saying the request was an insult to his court.The initial prosecution witness was Mohamed Said Awang, outgoing director of the police department's Special Branch and the country's top intelligence official. He testified that Anwar's sexual conduct was first investigated in 1992 in an operation code-named Solid Grip, and that Anwar asked him to get two people to recant statements accusing him of several sexual affairs. Within the Malaysian police, Mohamed testified, this type of job is called a turning over operation. He was asked to describe the procedure. My Lord, testified Mohamed Said, this is a Special Branch secret. It is a trade secret.  |  2  |    |    |  
 
But then, in an admission that was potentially damaging to the prosecution's case, Mohamed Said also admitted that he had reported to Mahathir in 1997 that the charges against Anwar were baseless, made on mere belief and suspicion, and possibly encouraged by a group with its own agenda. When asked if he would lie under oath if commanded by someone senior to the Deputy Prime Minister--meaning Mahathir--Mohamed Said gave the startling reply: Depends on the situation... I may or I may not.The testimony provided an unexpected peek into the workings of Mahathir's Malaysia. And it suggested further drama to come in this trial, which could last more than six months, and the subsequent hearing of the remaining six charges. (In addition, Malaysia's Attorney General announced late last month that a raft of other charges will be filed against Anwar.) The legal outcome is important for Anwar's future. A single conviction could get him time in jail and legally exclude him from politics for five years. The trials could extend into the next millennium, disqualifying him for a candidacy in the general election that must be held by April 2000. Apart from complete acquittal, Anwar's only hope would be a pardon from Malaysia's constitutional monarch.While Anwar faces humiliation within the courthouse, Mahathir faces, at the very least, acute embarrassment outside. Next week, Mahathir will host the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, playing host to, among others, Bill Clinton, Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and squads of premiers and presidents, foreign and finance ministers. The APEC meeting should have been Mahathir's shining moment on the global stage: instead, he'll have trouble finding world leaders willing to step into the spotlight with him. Clinton and others have already canceled bilateral meetings with Mahathir, a traditional courtesy. Presidents Joseph Estrada of the Philippines and B.J. Habibie of Indonesia planned mere day-trips to Kuala Lumpur, although Estrada later backed down and said he will stay longer. Some 300 non-governmental organizations are threatening protests. Anwar's domestic supporters captured headlines worldwide on Sept. 20 by holding rallies during Queen Elizabeth's visit to Kuala Lumpur to close the Commonwealth Games. APEC will provide the next excuse for a major rally.A longtime political insider, Anwar is no saint. But many Malaysians are concerned about his fate. It's no longer a question of whether Anwar has done something wrong or not, says Chandra Muzaffar, a University of Malaya political scientist. That's for the courts to decide. What the people cannot accept is the way that Mahathir has handled this matter from the beginning. (And state pressure isn't easing up. A Kuala Lumpur housewife invited pro-reform academics and opposition leaders to her house for a dinner discussion two weeks ago. Her hospitality was disrupted by a hovering police helicopter that shined flood lights onto her lawn.) Sales of Harakah, a pro-Islamic newspaper published twice weekly, have gone from 65,000 to almost 300,000 in six weeks, even though the tabloid can legally be purchased only by members of the opposition Islamic Party of Malaysia. (Applications to join the party have exploded.) We publish what the mainstream newspapers do not, says editor Zulkifli Sulong, like Anwar's side.  |    |  3  |    |  
 
Even stalwarts of Mahathir's United Malays National Organization (UMNO) concede that they are in trouble with voters. We must not underestimate the problem we have, says Minister for Education Najib Abdul Razak. The bigger challenge for us is to win back the hearts and minds of the masses.What's especially surprising is the extent to which Mahathir has misplayed his hand throughout the crisis. He insisted that Anwar's dismissal wasn't a political ploy, but rather a legal necessity in view of his alleged sexual misdeeds. But then the government detained 17 Anwar supporters under the Internal Security Act, and UMNO is now in the process of expelling Anwar's allies within the party, prompting Malaysians to view the case as essentially political. On Sept. 20, unknown assailants beat Anwar nearly unconscious 10 minutes after his arrival at the Bukit Aman lockup in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. According to Anwar's prison diary, he was blindfolded and handcuffed. I was severely beaten on the right side of the head, the left part of the forehead, the left eye and the neck. Blood oozed from my nose and mouth. Instead of condemning the beating, Mahathir contributed to the furor by observing that Anwar's injuries may have been self-inflicted.Anwar's supporters, meanwhile, were plotting a campaign to keep their patron and hero from tumbling into political irrelevance during his incarceration. The whole plan has been to isolate Mahathir from the party and the society, says Saifuddin Nasution Ismail, the former deputy head of the influential UMNO youth wing, until there is only him and the police. Saifuddin and three other chieftains are in exile to evade arrest warrants, but they are on the phone daily to Kuala Lumpur and are traveling widely throughout Southeast Asia to rally support.The group's initial objective was to portray Anwar's sacking as a political clash and not a simple legal case. After his firing, but before his arrest, Anwar lobbied UMNO members of parliament, giving his side of the story. Then the rallies picked up steam; Anwar broadened his message to call for reformasi and, finally, for Mahathir's resignation. Simultaneously, he tried to build bridges with parties other than UMNO, and he shared a stage in Malacca state with Lim Kit Siang, president of the Democratic Action Party, which draws support from the Chinese-Malaysian community. The next step was to hold a massive rally during Queen Elizabeth's visit. We wanted to capitalize on the Commonwealth Games, says Khalid Jaafar, Anwar's former press secretary, and we knew Mahathir would crack down. Such a reaction was deemed vital to energize two important social groups, students and ordinary citizens. The police played into the plan: some 300 pro-reform protesters have been arrested in Kuala Lumpur, including 20 last month whose infraction was the possession of pro-Anwar posters. All along, Anwar's underground team was lobbying internationally, starting with Southeast Asian governments. We didn't want Mahathir to be able to say that this was a Western plot, says Khalid.  |    |    |  4  |  
 
The reform effort now appears to be growing on its own. Three overlapping grassroots opposition groups are demanding the repeal of the Internal Security Act, greater civil and political liberties and wider press freedom: the Malaysian People's Justice Movement, or Gerak; the Coalition for People's Democracy, known as Gagasan; and the looser, more spontaneous reformasi movement, which has been taking to the streets of Kuala Lumpur virtually every weekend. We don't know who is behind reformasi, says Khalid. We call it the hidden hand. Observes a political analyst in Singapore: This incredible momentum for Anwar indicates that his support is stronger and deeper than anyone thought.Anwar, a one-time Islamic firebrand who was jailed in the 1970s for organizing anti-government protests, retains a following among the Malay masses. The country is being ruined, says a Malay businessman from Malaysia's eastern coast, who is also an UMNO member. Our Prime Minister is too arrogant. Now he is living in fear. Agrees Zainal, a clerk in a Kuala Lumpur accounting firm: He will do anything to get what he wants. His way is dictatorship. UMNO leaders recognize their slipping support among Malays, and Mahathir has tried buttressing his support within the Chinese-Malaysian community, which comprises 27% of the population. More pugnaciously, he asked the National Security Council, police and regional political leaders to study Anwar's 1996 book The Asian Renaissance--to better know the thinking of his ally-turned-antagonist.Of course, Mahathir is himself a legendary political survivor, usually at his best when trapped in a corner. His control over UMNO remains strong--a lesser leadership challenge in 1987 actually split the party. Many Malaysian analysts say the Prime Minister can probably hold onto power if the economy takes a sudden turn for the better and the trial credibly convicts Anwar on at least some of the charges. Coalitions of opposition parties in Malaysia have always been fragile, and UMNO is a well-greased political machine.But Anwar's challenge is like none Malaysia has seen before. In every town and village, predicts former press secretary Khalid, there will be pictures of Anwar, waving, with a black eye. Anwar's closest supporters will also seek to focus public attention on his charges of cronyism against the Prime Minister. Mahathir has approved massive bailouts for companies affected by the Asian financial crisis, many of them controlled by political associates and, in a notable case, his son Mirzan. The Prime Minister defends such moves as necessary to prevent further economic collapse and widespread unemployment. Anwar has labeled such rescue packages as tantamount to corruption. His jail diary hurls specific accusations, and Malaysians were busy downloading it from the Internet all weekend. And that's just the start. One company being propped up is Perwaja Steel, with a loan of more than $1 billion. The independent auditor's final report on Perwaja hit Anwar's desk only days before he was sacked. That document is now hidden away in a safe in Singapore. Anwar's supporters say there are at least three other boxes of interesting documents waiting to see the light of day.For his part, Mahathir shows no signs of letting up. With characteristic vigor, he continues to defend his government's economic policies and denounce his critics. He recently informed President Estrada of the Philippines that he could not visit Anwar in jail next week because such a move might intimidate the trial judge. Two years ago, TIME asked Mahathir how he hoped to be remembered by history. His answer was oddly caustic, especially for those happier days. What can we say about the future? the Prime Minister asked. You are not around to refute what they say, and they will say all kinds of nasty things about you. Or maybe it was prescient: for Mahathir of Malaysia, the future is now.Reported by John Colmey and David Liebhold/Kuala Lumpur, Nelly Sindayen/Manila and Ravi Velloor/Singapore  |    |    |    |  5