Kuala Lumpur, Feb 2 (IPS) - Opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim has filed a multi-million dollar defamation suit against his mentor- turned-nemesis, Mahathir Mohamad who has publicly repeated allegations, he first made as prime minister, that his former protégé is gay.
The expected high voltage legal battle could go beyond a personal feud and expose the many excesses associated with the authoritarian, 22-year-long rule (1981 to 2003) of Mahathir, one of South-east Asia's longest-serving politicians.
Anwar says he has no choice but to file suit to clear his name once and for all in the face of Mahathir's refusal to respect the decision of the country's apex court which, in September 2004, acquitted Anwar of sodomy charges and freed him from prison.
Another court, last year, awarded Anwar unspecified sums in damages, to be paid by the author of a booklet that first linked Anwar to sexual improprieties. And the police chief, who pummeled Anwar while in prison, giving him the 'black eye' that made world headlines, also apologised and paid Anwar unspecified sums in damages.
To Anwar, these victories were to be built upon in his bid to return to the political centre-stage when Mahathir, who retired as prime minister in October 2003, repeated his allegations before the international media, reopening a festering wound.
"I cannot have a 'sodomiser' in my cabinet ... imagine a gay prime minister... nobody will be safe," Mahathir told reporters in September, last year. Sodomy is a crime in this conservative, mostly Muslim South-east Asian country.
Political aides said Anwar, who divides his time between lecturing overseas and meeting grassroots supporters here, was stunned by the remarks.
"I had announced I held no malice to Mahathir and was prepared to forget and move on," Anwar told IPS in an interview. "I have no choice now but to return to the court to clear my name after he kept repeating the unfounded allegations."
"The trial will be a major, major battle and I will reveal everything - corruption, conspiracy and cronyism," Anwar promised. "I will produce evidence, numerous documents and many reports."
"This is the only recourse open to me," Anwar said. When Anwar demanded an apology, Mahathir responded by saying: "I will see him in court."
Political analysts say it is probably the biggest political battle in the long political careers of both Anwar and Mahathir.
"Anwar's comeback plans are in jeopardy for as long as someone as powerful and influential as Mahathir keeps saying he is a sodomite," said a veteran political commentator who declined to be named for fear of legal complications. "Malay society is intrinsically conservative and such allegations must be killed for good if Anwar is to ever to regain his political future."
The issue is seen to be equally important for Mahathir because his legacy is ultimately founded on public acceptance that his sacking of Anwar, in 1998, was valid and justified.
"Otherwise, his legacy will always be coloured by doubts that he sacked his deputy to save his own skin," the commentator said. "The outcome of the upcoming court battle will have a decisive impact on the status of Anwar and Mahathir in Malay society and their place in history."
For Anwar, the court battle is crucial to regaining lost political momentum while for Mahathir a victory would be a final endorsement that he was right in sacking his protégé and saving the country from what he saw as certain disaster.
"We have a strong and sure case," said Sankaran Nair, one of Anwar's three counsels. Mahathir's legal team is working to file his defence and no date for hearing has been fixed.
Anwar has other problems besides the upcoming court battle.
The government won a recent by-election, by a narrow majority and amidst allegations of vote rigging, where Anwar had campaigned for the opposition. The loss has somewhat dented Anwar's standing.
Government-controlled mainstream media, by a persistent boycott, has made him politically invisible to the extent that many believe that Anwar has retired from politics. Bitter infighting within his National Justice Party has also alienated grassroots support, disrupting his comeback plans.
Anwar, who was sacked at the height of the Asian financial crisis in 1998, says Mahathir and others conspired to tarnish his image and sack him to prevent him from making a bid for the top job.
Following his sacking, Anwar was found guilty of corruption, in a tainted trial, of using his powers as deputy prime minister, to frustrate a police investigation into the sodomy charges. He was sentenced to a total of 15 years in prison.
In September 2004, the Federal Court, the country's highest, acquitted him of the sodomy charge and set him free. But by that time he had already served six years for corruption.
Anwar in his defamation suit, has accused Mahathir of speaking "falsely and maliciously" to tarnish his character and said his reputation had been "gravely injured" because the comments were widely published by local and international media.
"We are seeking damages and an injunction to prevent Mahathir from making similar allegations in the future," Nair said adding they will let the court decide on the quantum of compensation.
Anwar is currently a distinguished visiting professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, Washington and a senior associate member at St. Anthony's College at Oxford University in Britain.
The impending court battle has sparked excitement and a furious debate in cyberspace where there is less inhibition to debating sensitive issues. Some Malaysians see the battle as Mahathir's day of reckoning while others see it as a frivolous action against a "great man" that is bound to fail.
"The fact that Dr. Mahathir has to appear in court and answer questions is good enough for me," wrote one commentator in the 'Malaysia Today' news website. "He was so powerful when he was Prime Minister and every one including institutions like the police, the army and the judiciary were all under his thumb."
"Anwar benefited from Dr. Mahathir a lot but in the end stabbed him in the back - he deserved what he got. He has no vision, goodwill or patriotism," said another writer.
While ordinary Malaysians debate and take sides, as they have since the start of the open fight between the two leaders in 1998, human rights activists worry over whether the judiciary, once accused of slavish obedience to Mahathir, is now bold and independent enough, to consider the suit impartially.