November 7, 2003

Hope in a Malaysian prison cell

By Wayne Arnold/IHT

SINGAPORE  Though his political nemesis has stepped aside to await history’s judgment, Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, remains in a tiny prison cell, awaiting his own shot at vindication.
Political analysts say that Anwar may get that chance now that Mahathir bin Mohamad has relinquished his 22-year grip on leadership.
Almost five years after Anwar was imprisoned for corruption, they say, he no longer poses the political threat he did when his dismissal by Mahathir in late 1998 and trial set off unprecedented protests by demonstrators calling for reform.
Now, the government of Mahathir’s successor, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, stands more to gain from Anwar’s release, these analysts say. Not only would freedom for Anwar help mute criticism of Malaysia abroad, but it would be seen as a popular gesture before general elections that are due to be held within the next year.
With the political atmosphere suddenly so conducive to his freedom, Anwar’s lawyers say they are hopeful the country’s courts may finally hear their motions for his release.
‘‘I’m putting pressure on the court,’’ said Sankara Nair, an attorney for Anwar in Kuala Lumpur.
After being dismissed for challenging Mahathir over how to respond to the Asian financial crisis, Anwar was convicted of corruption and of sodomy and sentenced to two consecutive prison terms totaling 15 years. He and his supporters have denounced the verdicts as part of a political conspiracy.
With time off for good behavior, Anwar, 55, has completed his corruption sentence and now faces at least six more years in jail on the sodomy conviction. His lawyers are appealing, and have also applied for his release on bail pending the outcome.
While Abdullah might hope the courts release Anwar in time to collect electoral benefits, doing so has risks, according to some analysts. Though Abdullah technically has no say in the matter, releasing Anwar too soon after Mahathir’s resignation might give the appearance that Abdullah is breaking with his predecessor’s policies, something he has made clear is not his intention.
Worse, a quick decision to release Anwar might reinforce suspicions that his conviction was politically motivated.
‘‘It’s an awkward situation for the new prime minister,’’ said Bob Broadfoot, managing director of the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy in Hong Kong.
Broadfoot said that many foreign investors and observers were also waiting to see how well Abdullah would respect the independence of public institutions such as regulators and the press, where Mahathir frequently intervened.
To many, Anwar still symbolizes the spirit of reform in Malaysian politics. He writes occasional opinion pieces from prison, and he marked Mahathir’s resignation with comments criticizing him as selfish and profligate.
Mahathir picked Anwar as his protégé in the early 1980’s. A fierce government opponent and head of a prominent Muslim youth group, Anwar brought to Mahathir’s governing United Malays National Organization, or UNMO, the concept of a modern, progressive Muslim society. Anwar’s Islamic credentials also helped Mahathir’s party stave off the conservative Islamic Party of Malaysia, known as PAS.
But Anwar’s trial proved deeply divisive, particularly after he was beaten while in custody. Despite his conviction over a crime considered immoral by Islam, his imprisonment cost the United Malays National Organization support among conservative Malays, enabling the Islamic Party of Malaysia to strengthen its control in 1999 over the ethnic Malay heartland in the north.
‘‘UMNO was viewed as having lost its moral compass,’’ Broadfoot said.
Some investors were also troubled by the apparent backlash against Anwar’s allies in business and finance. When the central bank began a program to force the country’s banks to consolidate in 1999, bankers linked to Anwar found themselves on the receiving end of takeovers.
Mahathir later managed to repair much of the damage to Malaysia’s reputation among investors. And despite his tirades against Jews and the war on terrorism, Mahathir’s cooperation in apprehending suspected terrorists has helped soothe relations with Washington.
Since Anwar went to prison, some analysts believe, the fight against Muslim radicalism in Malaysian universities has supplanted removed his relevance in Malaysian politics.
‘‘He’s really been marginalized,’’ Broadfoot said.
Others say the tensions created in the Muslim community by the war on terrorism have only deepened the need of the United Malays National Organization to burnish its credentials as the voice of progressive Islam. Many of the country’s more conservative rural voters still consider Anwar’s imprisonment a grave injustice, they say.
‘‘At the grass-roots level, they still think that Anwar is innocent,’’ said a Malaysian political analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity. ‘‘They blame Mahathir and no one else,’’ he said.
But Anwar’s fate still rests in Malaysia’s courts. Having exhausted his appeals against the corruption conviction, Anwar’s lawyers have filed a request for the Federal Court, Malaysia’s highest, to review and reopen the case, using the same precedent in Commonwealth law that freed the four Irish Republican Army terrorists known as the Guilford Four, according to Nair.
At the same time, they are appealing Anwar’s sodomy conviction in the Federal Court, which has yet to schedule a hearing. Lawyers have been waiting for four months for the court to rule on their application that Anwar be freed on bail pending the outcome of the appeal.
Frustrated with the delays, Nair said, Anwar’s lawyers have taken the unprecedented step of asking Malaysia’s Court of Appeal — an intermediary court — to review its decision to uphold Anwar’s sodomy conviction before the Federal Court has heard his final appeal.
‘‘We’re in limbo,’’ Nair said.
Anwar is suffering from chronic back pain caused by a fall suffered during his assault by the police, Nair said, and hopes to be able to go Germany to seek treatment.
With so many potential mechanisms for his release and so much to be gained from his freedom, analysts are optimistic that Anwar could be out of prison by the end of the year. All Abdullah needs to do, they say, is do nothing at all.