High drama as the Anwar corruption case gets under way

By Santha Oorjitham and Arjuna Ranawana / Kuala Lumpur

THE TRIAL OF FORMER deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim always promised to be a spectacle. After all, as many pundits have pointed out, this is not merely the trial of one person but of a nation and its leadership. Moreover, the substance of the first tranche of charges against Anwar - that he asked the police to help quash allegations against him of sexual impropriety - makes the Monica Lewinsky affair almost pale in comparison.

But who could have predicted the revelatory testimony of Mohamed Said Awang, chief of the Special Branch? Said, who retires this month, told the court that although initial questioning of two witnesses showed that their allegations of philandering and sodomy against Anwar had some basis, he instructed his officers to obtain retractions from them anyway. Said also denied sending a report to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, but the prosecution eventually produced one, in which Said said the allegations were baseless and appeared to be created by a certain group with its own agenda.

But it was Said's admission that he "may or may not lie" if ordered to by "someone higher than the deputy prime minister" that prompted gasps from the gallery. Defense lawyer Christopher Fernando told Said: "Therefore you are an unreliable person and your evidence cannot be accepted."

Suddenly, Malaysia's "trial of the century" was getting even more interesting. Judge Augustine Paul gave Fernando wide latitude in his cross-examination of Said. Later, however, Fernando and Paul clashed when Fernando asked an official in the PM's office if the King had approved Anwar's sacking on Sept. 2, as required by law. Fernando told the court he was trying to show evidence of a political conspiracy against Anwar, but Paul disallowed that question.

Aside from the legal drama, the trial also put a spotlight on the apparent machinations of Malaysia's ruling elite - a modus operandi that many had merely suspected. People outside the courthouse professed shock that leaders might order the police to use coercion against political enemies to change their point of view. "We are very concerned about the police practices," said Charles Weisselberg, a University of California law professor who has been observing the trial. "The government is paying an enormous price."

Using the police for political purposes is one of the allegations leveled at Anwar. On Day Seven of the trial, Nov. 10, a senior police officer named Abdul Aziz Hussin told the court that police interrogated one of Anwar's accusers for several hours in an ultimately successful attempt to force her to retract the allegations. The police actions, said Aziz, were carried out at Anwar's instigation.

The subject of the alleged interrogation was Ummi Hafilda Ali, whose brother Mohamed Azmin Ali was Anwar's private secretary until the deputy premier was sacked in September. Ummi was picked up for questioning in August 1997 after she wrote a letter accusing Anwar of sleeping with her brother's wife, Shamsidar Taharin, and of sodomizing his driver, Azizan Abu Bakar. The letter, co-written by the driver, ultimately found its way into Mahathir's hands.

The prosecution called Aziz, a member of the Special Branch, to testify about the police operation that Anwar allegedly set in motion to pressure Ummi and Anwar's driver to retract their allegations. Aziz told the court that the aim of interrogating Ummi was to "turn over" or "neutralize" her. "We faced difficulties to do a turnover on Ummi," Aziz testified, "because she was firm and her stand was consistent. The approach we used was based on psychology. We used fear on her, based on laws such as the Internal Security Act and the Sedition Act."

For his part, Said testified earlier that Anwar repeatedly told him to be gentle with his accusers and not to detain them for long. "I told the interrogators they had less than 24 hours to get a retraction," Said told the court. He also testified that during the police's preliminary assessment of Ummi and Anwar's driver, they came to the conclusion that there was some basis for the allegations against the former deputy prime minister. "Despite that," Said told the court, "Iordered them to go back again and neutralize them." Eventually both Ummi and the driver retracted their original allegations against Anwar.

Ummi is a key witness for the prosecution. The power-suited "motivation" consultant put in several appearances in the first few days of the trial but had yet to testify. She can probably expect a tough cross-examination by the defense once she takes the stand. Anwar's legal team has already been trying to expose connections between individuals who may have tried to influence Ummi and the driver to make the allegations.

At one point, Fernando asked Said if in a second report to Mahathir he had suggested that Domestic Trade Minister Megat Junid Ayob "and a few others were behind the plot to topple Anwar." Said replied: "I don't think I wrote such things. I doubt it very much." Then Fernando asked if in the report Said had mentioned Mahathir's political secretary Aziz Shamsuddin and Special Functions Minister Daim Zainuddin. In both cases, Said replied: "I may have."

Later, Fernando again asked Said if in his report he had stated that Megat, Aziz, Daim and "some corporate leaders" had conspired to topple Anwar. Said replied: "I don't think I wrote such things. (In her retraction letter, Ummi wrote that she met Daim and Aziz to discuss leveling charges against Anwar.)

Said also told the court that he might have mentioned in a report to Mahathir that two men posed as police officers, but he said he did not remember whether they said they were sent to pressure Ummi and Anwar's driver to make the allegations.

The following day when Fernando pressed him hard about the second report, Said testified: "I don't think there is any such report." Fernando replied: "You yourself informed the court there could be one or two reports." Said replied: "Yes." In the end, Judge Paul asked the prosecution to produce the alleged report or get a Special Branch witness to deny its existence.

As the trial progressed, Anwar, who has denied all 10 charges of corruption and illegal sex acts, seemed more like his old self than he did weeks ago when he sported the infamous black eye. Each day as he was brought into court he hugged his wife and his daughters. While he has lost weight and reportedly 40% of his hearing during an alleged beating at the hands of police, Anwar the politician was much in evidence, despite tight security.

Until he was dissuaded from doing so, Anwar talked freely to reporters and supporters. One day he asked journalists to wear the White Ribbon for Justice donned by those sympathetic to his cause. When a reporter said: "We cannot," Anwar suggested he take if off at the office "before your editor sees it."

An ebullient attitude from a man with so much to lose. Should Anwar be convicted, he faces hard prison time. Even if he prevails, Anwar could face political oblivion. At this point only one thing seems clear. Whatever the outcome, all of Malaysia will pay the price.

Page 3 | Page 5