Anwar Ibrahim trial turns back the clock in Malaysia

( The former deputy prime minister is on trial for sodomy again. It looks as politically motivated as before

Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the Malaysian opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, is on trial for sodomy, again. The first time it happened, in 1998, there was an international outcry; this time there is barely a whimper.

Under the Malaysian penal code all acts of sodomy, whether consensual or not, are criminal offences. If found guilty, Anwar could face up to 20 years imprisonment and flogging.

In 1998, when Anwar was deputy prime minister, he accused Mahathir Mohamad (then prime minister) of nepotism, cronyism and standing in the way of meaningful reform. Ibrahim was dismissed and, after a deeply flawed trial, was convicted on charges of corruption and sodomy with his wife’s driver, receiving sentences of six and nine years, respectively. He successfully appealed against the conviction for sodomy and was released in September 2004, having spent six years in solitary confinement.

The current trial appears to be a rerun of the earlier one: the same charges, the same flaws in evidence and, crucially, the same cast of officials linked in murky ways to the case.

The trial resumes this week, having had an inauspicious start. Abdul Gani Patail, the attorney general, stepped in to transfer the case to the high court, despite assurances that he would not be involved in the trial. Why? In 1998 he was the original chief prosecutor amid allegations of fabricated evidence, prosecutorial misconduct and police brutality.

There have been delays and a paucity of evidence. The existing medical reports suggest no evidence of sodomy upon the complainant, forced or otherwise.

The complainant is Saiful Bukhari Azlan, formerly a junior staff member in the opposition leader’s team. Under cross-examination he revealed that only days before making his complaint he met deputy prime minister (now prime minister) Najib Tun Razak at his home.

After initially denying it, Razak later confirmed that he had indeed met Saiful, saying that this was on the same basis that any concerned leader would meet an ordinary citizen.

One international observer from Australia has called the trial seriously flawed and argued that it should have been abandoned.

Shubhaa Srinivasan, chair of the Malaysian Wworking Ggroup of the Solicitors’ International Human Rights Group, who has been following the trial, told me:

“The deeply concerning irregularities in Ibrahim’s current trial calls into question the independence and integrity of the Malaysian judiciary. It’s not only Ibrahim who is on trial, the Malaysian judiciary and its justice system is in the dock.”

The latest case against Anwar began just as he returned to politics in 2008. The Barisan Nasional party, which has dominated parliament and ruled Malaysia for half a century, suffered a setback at the polls after calling a snap election in March 2008. The opposition coalition won an unprecedented 47% of the popular vote and more than a quarter of the seats in parliament.

However, opposition MPs face significant hurdles. They have little or no publicity as the media is controlled directly or indirectly by government MPs, their families or companies linked to them. They may face charges of sedition, be disciplined and suspended by the parliamentary speaker for criticising the government and be denied permits by the police for meetings and gatherings, if they haven’t been arrested and detained under the 1960 Internal Security Act (ISA) and other preventative laws.

A hangover from British colonial rule, the ISA allows arrest and preventative detention for up to 60 days in special police remand centres. Detainees can initially be held without access to lawyers, their family members and – importantly – judicial oversight, making conditions ripe for the ill-treatment and torture of detainees. Detainees may never face charges; they may have their detention renewed an unlimited number of times and face restrictions on their residence, movement, and freedom of expression and association upon release. There is always the prospect of rearrest and detention.

The Malaysian government says these laws are necessary to combat terrorism. More often than not they are used to silence dissent.

Once again this trial has all the hallmarks to suggest that it is both politically motivated and unfair.