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Anwar Sex Case Puts Malaysian Courts on Trial as Election Nears


Aug. 20 (Bloomberg) — The first time Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister, was accused of illegal sex with a man, the court proceedings so dismayed a Universiti Malaya law lecturer that he told his students to throw away their textbooks.“What’s admissible is irrelevant, what’s relevant is not admissible,” retired High Court Judge Shaik Daud Ismail said he told his class after the trial that convicted Anwar started in 1998.A decade later, with Anwar facing similar charges, Shaik Daud, 72, says Malaysia’s judiciary still needs reform.“The system is crooked,” said Shaik Daud, who calls himself politically independent.

Anwar, 61, served six years in prison before his conviction was overturned in 2004. Now leader of the opposition, he says the new case was fabricated to stop him from ousting the ruling coalition that banished him the last time he was accused. Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, Anwar’s rival to succeed Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, denies that.Lashing back, Anwar last month helped publicize a private investigator’s accusation that Najib had an affair with a woman before she was murdered. Najib, 55, denied ever meeting her. The investigator retracted the claim a day later.The counter-allegations are testing a judicial system that even Abdullah has said some Malaysians see as corrupt.

`Liable to Manipulation’“The system is liable to manipulation,” says Abdul Aziz Bari, an International Islamic University Malaysia law professor. “I am not sure whether it is good enough to handle all this.”Malaysia’s chief justice, Abdul Hamid Mohamad, declined to be interviewed for this story.Anwar pleaded not guilty on Aug. 7 to having sex with a 23- year-old man who worked for him. He’s accused under a law barring sodomy, defined as “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” Violators face up to 20 years in prison.Free on bail, Anwar plans to win a seat in an Aug. 26 parliamentary by-election and then persuade enough ruling- coalition lawmakers to join his opposition to oust Abdullah. In March elections, opposition gains left the ruling coalition with its smallest majority since independence from Britain in 1957.

In Malaysia, King Mizan Zainal Abidin appoints judges on the advice of the prime minister. Judges, not juries, deliver verdicts after hearing evidence from prosecutors and the defense.Dismissed JudgeThe judiciary lost credibility in 1988 when then-King Sultan Iskandar Ismail dismissed Salleh Abas, Malaysia’s chief judge, on instructions from a tribunal set up by Mahathir Mohamad, prime minister at the time.Mahathir denied involvement in the decision, which followed a High Court ruling that his party was illegal because some regional branches weren’t properly registered.

In another 1988 move that critics say compromised independence, the government changed the constitution to allow federal law, rather than the constitution itself, to determine the reach of judicial power.The amendment “disturbs the concept of the separation of powers,” the International Bar Association and other lawyers’ groups said in a 2000 report. “It tends to make the judiciary an arm of the legislature, an instrument of the executive.”The handling of the Anwar sodomy case raised further doubts. As deputy leader from 1993 to 1998, he and Mahathir had clashed over the Asian financial crisis.

`Deja Vu’As that rivalry heated up, Anwar was accused of sodomy with a man. Anwar successfully argued on appeal that the trial judge disregarded exculpatory evidence: A prosecution witness changed the alleged offense’s date. A policeman said Anwar’s DNA could have been “planted” on a mattress. The chemist who testified he found the DNA said he destroyed it.The case was “embarrassing” and “did a lot more damage to Malaysia’s judicial-system image than it did to Anwar,” says Robert Broadfoot, managing director of Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy Ltd. “There’s the suspicion of political influence. Is this deja vu all over again?” he added, referring to the new case.

As opposition leader, Anwar criticizes the system. Last year, he released a secretly filmed video showing a lawyer claiming to know about future judicial appointments during a phone call with a judge.`Chronic’ BacklogA royal inquiry found that the 2001 recording suggested an “insidious movement” to influence appointments. Abdullah, 68, in March responded by appointing Senator Zaid Ibrahim to push through reforms. The 1988 “crisis” still “haunts us,” Abdullah said in April, promising a new commission to vet judge candidates.“The legal sector has been neglected,” said Zaid, a former lawyer. Judges are paid too little and face a “chronic” case backlog.

There are 903,000 outstanding cases in Malaysia, state news service Bernama said June 3. Malaysia’s chief justice, Abdul Hamid, earns 424,314 ringgit ($127,441) a year, including perks, according to the Malaysian Bar Council. In the U.S., Chief Justice John Roberts will be paid $217,400 this year.Abdullah’s vetting commission probably won’t start work until 2009, and how much authority will rest with the premier remains undecided, Zaid said.“I question whether the prime minister should be given the sole prerogative” on picking judges, said Gobind Singh, an opposition lawmaker. “That allows for an ultimately biased judiciary.”

Any legal shakeup should include the police, said Tunku Abdul Aziz, a member of a 2004 royal inquiry into Malaysia’s police.In 1998, Anwar was beaten by Malaysia’s police chief, Abdul Rahim Noor, who was sentenced to two months in prison for the attack. Malaysia has yet to create an independent police complaints commission, the inquiry’s main recommendation.“We discovered that every level of the police service was tainted by corruption,” Abdul Aziz said.

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