Apr 25th 2002

Silencing the critics

Anwar, briefly out of solitary confinement
APRIL has been a cruel month for Malaysian advocates of civil liberties. On the 10th, six political activists marked a year of imprisonment under the Internal Security Act (ISA), a repressive relic of colonial rule that allows for indefinite detention without trial. Four days later, Anwar Ibrahim, a former minister and champion of political reform, completed his third year in jail, for offences that his lawyers claim were trumped up by the government. A hunger strike, started by the six and joined by Mr Anwar, collapsed last weekend in confusion. At the same time, the authorities arrested another 14 people under the ISA, bringing the number of detainees under the act to 62. Disturbingly, few Malaysians seem to care.
As recently as a year ago, Malaysian politics revolved around Mr Anwar and the frequent demonstrations in his favour. The six activists, all supporters of Mr Anwar's reform movement, were themselves arrested while organising a rally to mark the second anniversary of his arrest. Many Malaysians questioned a police claim that those arrested were plotting a coup, noting instead that they were important to sustaining Mr Anwar's cause. At any rate, their arrest was one of a series of events that has helped to dampen criticism of the government dramatically.
Deprived of their leaders, the pro-Anwar demonstrations began to decline. Brutal policing, as attested to by Malaysia's independent human-rights watchdog, must have put off some potential protesters. So, too, has the government's ban on political rallies. Malaysia's media, never the most outspoken, has been further cowed over the past year by the takeover of a Chinese-language paper by a group sympathetic to the government, and the sacking of some of the more adventurous journalists at an English-language one. The short-lived hunger strike barely earned a mention in the local papers. Above all, the events of September 11th boosted the government's argument that severe measures such as the ISA were needed to nip extremism in the bud. Most of those now detained under the act are alleged Muslim militants.
Anyway, few of Mr Anwar's sympathisers view his treatment as part of a broader problem of civil liberties, according to Sankara Nair, his lawyer. Instead, they see it as a personal betrayal by Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's prime minister and Mr Anwar's one-time mentor. Mr Nair says the government's critics place more emphasis on the need for a change of prime minister than of the law.
Yet it is hard to envisage a political comeback for Mr Anwar. He is held in solitary confinement, supposedly for his security. His health is failing. He wears a brace because of a back problem. He gave up his hunger strike after just one day, complaining of flu. The courts, having rattled through the two cases against him remarkably quickly, have since been slow to settle his appeals. One court has yet to issue its judgment on the charge of corruption; another has yet to set a date for the appeal against his conviction for sodomy. If both sentences are upheld, Mr Anwar faces more than seven more years in prison, even allowing for early release due to good behaviour. His plight used to earn fierce condemnations from foreign governments. But September 11th changed all that, too: next month, for the first time in years, Dr Mahathir is cordially invited to the White House.