Anwar Trial Looms Over Malaysian Politics

By James Hookway, The Wall Street Journal

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is carving out a new role for himself as a liberal reformer after pledging to scrap the country’s harsh Internal Security Act, but he still has one big problem in selling his case to the rest of the world—the continuing sodomy trial of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

The trial has captivated Malaysia since Anwar was arrested three years ago for allegedly violating Malaysia’s strict sodomy laws by having sex with a male aide.

Mr. Anwar, a 64-year-old father of six with a goatee mustache and snappy glasses, denies the charges, saying they are a political plot to destroy any threat to the ruling coalition that has controlled Malaysia for over half a century. Mr. Najib and his government deny setting him up. If Mr. Anwar is convicted, he faces going to prison for the second time after being jailed in 1998 for allegedly sodomizing two other aides before an appeals court overturned his conviction.

The outcome could help determine bigger issues in this majority-Muslim, multi-racial nation of 28 million people, which has been struggling to break away from its system of race and religion-based politics that many analysts believe have retarded growth in one of Southeast Asia’s most important economies.

Although Mr. Najib is opening up the country’s political system to head off the kinds of stresses that have destabilized parts of the Middle East this year—on Thursday he announced plans to repeal harsh laws that allow for detention without trial and pledged new freedoms for the country’s closely controlled media—he faces a potential push-back from opponents in his ruling United Malays National Organization party. Some analysts view Mr. Anwar’s multi-ethnic opposition alliance as perhaps better placed to pursue a more aggressive liberalization policy—that is if he can stay out of jail and get elected to office.

This time around a difference is emerging compared with Mr. Anwar’s last trial, or so Mr. Anwar hopes: The importance of forensic evidence that could be partially attributed to—the widespread following here for fictional television cops such as Horatio Caine of the show CSI: Miami.

Political analysts say that in 1998 Mr. Anwar was convicted on witness testimony, but this time the prosecution relies heavily on new technologies such as DNA testing and other forensic-investigation techniques. That, Mr. Anwar told The Wall Street Journal during a recent recess at his trial, gives him fresh hope of being acquitted.

“Last time there was no medical report and no medical evidence—nothing but the word of mouth,” Mr. Anwar said during a lengthy discussion about anal swabs, data samples and the survival time of sperm cells. “But now the case is all about the science—and that’s where I have a chance.”

A Malaysian government spokesman says it has no comment on Anwar’s remarks, saying it is a matter for the courts.

During recent testimony in the marathon trial, Mr. Anwar’s lawyers presented a series of expert witnesses who raised doubts about the credibility of the forensic evidence presented by prosecutors. Australian forensics expert Brian McDonald told the court that the DNA testing and labeling wasn’t up to international standards and was riddled with errors. Dr. McDonald said it was unclear where some samples came from.

Some of the testimony could help Mr. Anwar’s case, especially in the court of public opinion, analysts say.

“I think it will resonate,” says Bridget Welsh, a professor Singapore Management University and a close observer of Malaysia’s political drama. “People in general don’t trust the system. That feeling is endemic in Malaysia and Mr. Anwar is trying to capitalize on it.”

It helps that shows such as the CSI franchises are so popular, especially the Miami-based version famously spoofed by comedian Jim Carrey on the David Letterman show. Malaysians closely follow the adventures of Lt. Caine and his colleagues as they try to bring down criminals using advanced forensic techniques and a spot of fisticuffs when appropriate.

“We know about forensics. Nobody can fool us about that. We’ve all seen CSI,” says one keen viewer, Rizal Osman, from Pahang, central Malaysia.

Bloggers, among others, often discuss plots from shows such as CSI and Special Victims Unit to discuss what’s going on in Malaysia. One person, Gerard Samuel Vijayan, wrote to the Malaysiakini portal to describe an episode of Special Victims Unit that featured a conspiracy to fabricate DNA. He said Mr. Anwar might be facing a similar problem. “Given the holes in the prosecution’s case, there is sufficient doubt to acquit the accused,” Mr. Vijayan wrote.

Either way, as the trial moves toward its conclusion—Mr. Anwar is scheduled to continue making his defense on Monday —Malaysians can expect to hear more about DNA, and in forensic detail, in the weeks and months to come.

Claiming he is unable to get a fair trial, Mr. Anwar unleashed a tirade against Malaysia’s judiciary recently, liberally quoting from Nelson Mandela, Shakespeare and the Quran to buttress his allegation that the judiciary and government are conspiring to put him away—something Mr. Najib denies.

If Mr. Anwar is ultimately convicted, “I hope the forensic evidence lingers in people’s minds,” he says. “It’s worth the effort and expense of debunking the prosecution’s entire case.”

In the meantime, Mr. Anwar’s political party is claiming the credit for forcing Mr. Najib to unlock Malaysia’s political system. Mr. Anwar took to microblogging site Twitter after arriving on an overnight flight from England to say Malaysians must remain vigilant. “We have to be wary whether the freedoms are now guaranteed and what laws will replace” the Internal Security Act.