From The Economist:
Malaysia's opposition leader on trial
PUTTING an opposition leader on trial inevitably carries a whiff of politics. When that leader is Anwar Ibrahim, and the charge is sodomy, the same accusation used in 1998 to wreck his political career and confine him to jail for six years, the whiff becomes a stink. Mr Anwar, a former deputy prime minister, is playing a familiar role in “Sodomy II”, as the newest case is known. He is in the dock again, but in the court of public opinion it is Malaysia’s judiciary and its political masters who face the judgment of a sceptical nation.
On May 10th the defence began its cross-examination of a former aide to Mr Anwar, Saiful Bukhari. In February he testified that Mr Anwar sodomised him in a borrowed flat on June 26th 2008.
In Malaysia “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” is punishable by up to 20 years in prison, even between consenting adults.
A conviction would automatically bar Mr Anwar from politics for five years and send his parliamentary coalition into disarray.
Mr Saiful, now aged 25, is the prosecution’s star witness. Karpal Singh, the doughty chief defence lawyer and an opposition MP, began by asking about Mr Saiful’s acquaintance with the prime minister, Najib Razak. Mr Anwar’s team claims that a political conspiracy has been undertaken to discredit him. The government denies it strenuously. But the circumstances of Mr Saiful’s accusation remain murky.
Mr Saiful has told the court that he went to visit Mr Najib, then deputy prime minister, at his house on June 24th 2008—two days before the alleged incident—to talk with him about his own troubles. That an ordinary citizen should have been granted such access has stoked suspicions. On the very same day, Mr Saiful went to see a police officer who played a key role in “Sodomy I”. Later, according to Mr Saiful’s testimony, he spoke by phone with Malaysia’s senior cop. How did he get the number? asked Mr Singh. Overheard it from Mr Najib, came the rather feeble reply.
Other questions touched on the findings of the doctors who examined Mr Saiful. Two days after the alleged molestation, they found no sign of penetration. Another doctor wrote that the witness had inserted a plastic object into his backside. “Nothing wrong with your anus. Why all this fuss?” asked Mr Singh, crossly. Challenged over the medical reports, Mr Saiful protested that he could not see his own anus. The judge concurred.
Malaysians have grown used to such smut in the courtroom. Mr Anwar’s first trial featured a crusty mattress that the prosecution said was stained with his semen, proof of sodomy. Mr Anwar was released in 2004 only after it was ruled that testimony against him had been coerced. Four years later, as Mr Anwar prepared to stand for office again, with hopes of toppling a shaky government, Mr Saiful joined his campaign as a volunteer. Whatever the merits of his complaint, it is hard not to suspect a political hand at work. Mr Singh seems determined to reveal whose.
The trial has proved a distraction for Mr Anwar. His party has suffered a string of defections and lost a recent by-election. Another by-election looms in the important state of Sarawak on May 16th. The trial has forced Mr Anwar to cut short his campaigning. He has managed to keep up his foreign jaunts though, staying on the international stage, and chiding Mr Najib’s government for having hired an American lobbying firm to raise Malaysia’s profile.
In 1998, when Mr Anwar was first taken down, his supporters thronged the streets. Reactions this time have been more muted. Foreign governments took a dim view of Sodomy I; America’s vice president at the time, Al Gore, said it “mocked international standards of justice”. Twelve years ago Malaysia was teetering on the brink of financial ruin, and nervous foreign investors looked to Mr Anwar as a safer pair of hands.
Fearing a power grab, the prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, sacked his uppity deputy and imposed capital controls. This time Malaysia’s finances are in fairly good shape and it is the rich world that is fretting over deficits. It may find less to say about Sodomy II.