The Economist: Anwar’s Trial
There they go again
The opposition leader treads a familiar path into the dock
Feb 4th 2010 | BANGKOK | From The Economist print edition
SLINGING mud at opponents is a staple of most democracies, even if voters might prefer a more sensible debate. In Malaysia, a prudish, majority-Muslim country, it seems that nothing succeeds quite like below-the-belt personal attacks. For Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition leader and former deputy prime minister, who went on trial this week accused of sodomising a young male aide, the tactic is wearily familiar. In 1998 he was charged with the same crime, found guilty and jailed. Exonerated and freed, he has staged a comeback that another conviction might jeopardise.
Much has changed in Malaysia since Mr Anwar last took the stand. His nemesis, the country’s longest-serving prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who presided over his downfall, has retired, if not exactly gracefully or quietly. The once-mighty United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which leads a 13-party multiracial governing coalition, looks increasingly vulnerable at a future election. A judiciary that was seen as beholden to its political masters has begun to assert its independence, and has sided with free-speech plaintiffs in prickly faith-related cases.
That independence will be put to the test in “Sodomy 2.0”, as Malaysia’s press has taken to calling Mr Anwar’s trial. His lawyers have pressed for the disclosure of prosecution evidence, including medical reports of the accuser, Saiful Bukhari. He told the court on February 3rd that Mr Anwar coerced him into having sex, which would be illegal in Malaysia and punishable by up to 20 years in jail. Mr Saiful worked briefly for Mr Anwar in 2008, when he was 23. During the same period, he was seen with aides of Najib Razak, then deputy prime minister and prime minister since last April. Mr Anwar accuses Mr Najib and his wife of a conspiracy to frame him and says they should testify. Mr Najib insists he has nothing to do with the case.
UMNO has been scheming to weaken the opposition, which won five out of 13 states in March 2008 elections that stunned the ruling coalition. Last year it seized back one of those states, Perak, by luring defectors. Then it tried, in vain, to peel off an Islamic party in Mr Anwar’s alliance. An anti-corruption agency has been mobilised to dig opposition dirt, with disastrous results in the case of Teoh Beng Hock, a political aide who died last July after falling out of a window while in the agency’s custody.
Mr Anwar’s trial is a much more potent weapon for UMNO, both as a blot on the opposition leader’s image and a distraction from his politicking. UMNO-owned media will harp on the sordid details, just as they did in the first trial when a semen-stained mattress was hauled into court. The blogosphere, however, where young Malaysians get their news, may not be easily impressed. Nor, it seems, will foreign investors, whom Mr Najib is desperate to attract with promises of a more open and less UMNO-dominated economy. His government’s image is already dented by corruption scandals, including a multibillion dollar project at Port Klang that has been dogged by accusations of mismanagement and cronyism. Some Malaysians may be wondering why such matters seem to generate less heat than Mr Anwar’s alleged transgressions.