Human Rights Watch today condemned the conviction of former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and his adopted brother Sukma Dermawan. Both were convicted of sodomy. Anwar was sentenced to nine years in prison; Sukma received six years and four lashes with a rattan cane.
"The verdicts are another blow to justice in Malaysia," said Joe Saunders, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "What has happened to Anwar and his supporters highlights the fragility of rights there. If you're out of favor with the political leadership ?no matter how high you might rise in the government ?you have very little protection. This is a real step backwards for Malaysia."
Anwar was Deputy Prime Minister until shortly before he was arrested in September 1998. He was later charged with sodomy and corruption for allegedly using his office to impede police investigations into the sexual misconduct allegations. In April 1999, he was convicted of corruption and sentenced to six years in prison.
The prosecution of Anwar has been widely viewed inside and outside Malaysia as a case of political revenge against Anwar and his supporters, who had grown increasingly critical of Prime Minister Mahathir in the months prior to Anwar's ouster and arrest. Anwar's prosecution has also been seen as undermining the integrity of the Malaysian judiciary, already widely criticized for its lack of independence. The Malaysian human rights organization SUARAM (Suara Rakyat Malaysia), the International Bar Association, and representatives of the European Parliament and the United States, among other international observers, have questioned the fairness of the Malaysian legal system.
The prosecution of Anwar has been marred by heavy-handed tactics and irregularities, including the following:
the use of the notorious "Internal Security Act" to detain Anwar for twenty-four days, initially without access to counsel, and others for even longer periods;
the abrupt transfer out of the Criminal Division of Senior Judge K. C. Vohrah just prior to assignment of the Anwar case. Judge Vohrah is known for his independence and was in line to hear the Anwar case;
the severe beating of Anwar in custody shortly after his initial arrest;
the recanting by key witnesses of their confessions to committing acts of sodomy with Anwar, and their allegations that the confessions were elicited by police coercion and physical abuse. For example, the prosecution threatened to seek the death penalty against Anwar associate K. S. Nallakaruppan, accused of illegally possessing ammunition along with an expired weapons permit, in an apparent attempt to induce him to testify against Anwar;
admission into evidence of a prior confession by co-defendant Sukma Dermawan, which was extracted by interrogators while Sukma was held in detention incommunicado for fifteen days without access to counsel, and which he subsequently retracted;
statements by Prime Minister Mahathir that assumed Anwar's guilt;
the prosecution of defense attorneys for written and oral statements made in the course of Anwar's defense, including 1) the conviction of attorney Zainur Zakaria for contempt for submitting an affidavit outlining the events surrounding Nallakaruppan's guilty plea and alleging that the prosecution fabricated evidence, and 2) the prosecution of defense attorney Karpal Singh with sedition for statements he made in court;
shifting factual allegations in the second trial, including the dates of the alleged crime: the prosecution initially charged that Anwar sodomized his wife's driver in Sukma's apartment in May 1994, but then changed the date to May 1992, citing a typographical error. When the defense proved that the apartment was not built until 1993, the prosecution again changed the date.
Since Anwar was first detained, the government has also instituted strict controls on rallies, arrested hundreds of protesters, shut down opposition publications, and banned public rallies in the capital.
"This has been a politically motivated prosecution from day one," said Saunders. "Anwar's arrest in 1998 started a downward spiral for basic civil and political rights in Malaysia. The verdict shows we have not seen the end of it."
Human Rights Watch also called on the Malaysian government to drop sedition charges against Karpal Singh relating to statements ?"people in high places" may have poisoned Anwar ?made by him in court. Under both international standards and Malaysian common law, lawyers cannot be prosecuted for in-court statements made in good faith.