Sham trial in Malaysia

Anwar: Prison term adds to public support for his reforms to succeed cranky ruler Mahathir.

April 19, 1999

ALMOST no one in or out of Malaysia believes that former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was justly convicted of corruption.

Most doubt he will serve the six-year prison term followed by four years of ineligibility for public office. Many have faith he will succeed the 73-year-old, ailing, autocratic and eccentric prime minister of the past 18 years, Mahathir Mohamad, who fixed the trial.

The charges were sexual depravity and "corruption," or obstruction of justice in fighting the charges. In the seven-month trial, the sexual charges were dropped. The judge did not allow the defense to show innocence of the sexual charges or political motive in the prosecution.

Mr. Anwar skillfully kept these issues alive, making his conviction of "corruption" wholly unconvincing.

The continuing unrest since the conviction is not yet on an Indonesian scale. Mr. Anwar's wife, Azizah Ismail, an ophthalmologist and dutiful Islamic wife and mother, has launched a political party to unite the opposition, which is normally fragmented.

Mr. Mahathir planned and canceled a political tour of the country to prepare for an election earlier than the required date of June 2000. If he ran against no one today, no one would win. If the election was rigged like the trial, unrest would explode.

Malaysia, however, badly needs to recapture the confidence of Malaysian and foreign investors in the wake of Mr. Mahathir's economic missteps. It is alienating both.

Nobody is either as innocent or as indispensable as Mr. Anwar now appears. He goes off to prison secure in the knowledge that most Malaysians and foreign observers believe he will soon be called -- preferably democratically -- to lead the once-booming country out of the economic, political and ethnic crises into which Mr. Mahathir dragged it.

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