Former Malaysian deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim who was acquitted of sodomy on January 9 jokes that he may be 64 but looks 46. He says his wife Azizah often retorts “you may look 46 but your back is 84.” After meeting him, you realise that it was his strong sense of humour and conviction that he was never in the wrong that helped him survive six years in solitary confinement. It was during that period that he suffered so much police assault that he was once mistaken for dead. His famous photograph with a black eye became the symbol of his predicament worldwide and the beating has left him with a permanent back injury that requires wearing a fortified brace all the time. While he needs surgery, he plans to postpone it since it would affect his travel and preparation for the next general elections in Malaysia. He heads the Opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat or People’s Justice Party and is confident of winning on a progressive multiethnic platform with emphasis on an independent judiciary and a free media.
The Arab Spring could find an echo in Malaysia which has 55 per cent ethnic Malay Muslims and a large Buddhist, Hindu and Christian population. He was first accused in 1998 of corruption and sodomy and again in 2008 of sodomy which is punishable with 20 years in Malaysia. Despite his serious injury and harsh treatment, he is forgiving. He doesn’t expect an apology from the powers that be and has no plans to sue the government. “Can you sue Hitler?” he asks, adding that he will form the next government. A close aide of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed, he took on corruption within the first family leading to his arrest and conviction the first time. He has been described as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and received widespread support from the world over after he was jailed.
In India at the invitation of Rajmohan Gandhi as part of a pro democratic think thank initiative, Mr Ibrahim is grateful for support from this country and others and this is perhaps what led to his acquittal. He orders “garam paani” (hot water) in Hindi and confesses to being an avid fan of older Bollywood films like Sangam, but is not in touch with current releases. Most Malaysian papers said the acquittal was on technical grounds which is far from the truth, he says.
Excerpts from an interview with Meena Menon.
The verdict of acquittal surprised you..?
Because I gave evidence based on the facts and law to suggest that the decisions in the trial were blatantly biased against me. Key witnesses we wanted to call were disallowed, which is unacceptable. This is a criminal charge based on a complainant, who went to the doctors. So we wanted those notes of examination but this was not given to us. We adduced enough evidence to suggest there was fabrication. It was only after we brought in international experts that we could prove this. No local expert would dare come out and testify under such a regime.
I don’t know if the verdict was due to public pressure or fears that the international community would focus on Malaysia --I don’t know whether the judge decided this based on his conscience. It was not a convenient, normal sort of a verdict. Certainly it came as a surprise, I don’t know why the judge did this.
What would be the political impact of this decision. Polls are expected soon in Malaysia and can this verdict work to your advantage?
Elections will be called very soon, anytime from March to June, I don’t think they will delay for far too long, since the new Prime Minister has not got the mandate. Secondly, the economic projections for this year are not great, but notwithstanding all this I am optimistic that we can wrest control from the government, predicated upon free elections, which we don’t have.
What about your years in prison? How did you survive?
There is no issue of money, land or remunerations. I was also finance minister then and there was no basis for charging me over any irregularity. So they charged me with speaking to the police over some scurrilous attacks on my character. The police came over and I said investigate it. What’s wrong with that? The ministry for home affairs at that time was under Mahathir, he should be questioned not me. I have no authority to go and direct the police, it was under my boss. That’s Malaysia. But still we are better than Zimbabwe(smiles).
I opposed Mahathir who wanted 2 billion ringgit to bail out his son then. Later his family could pay 2.9 b ringgit to buy San Miguel company. How did you raise the money in cash?
But the important thing is to move on - move forward.
How did you keep your morale up in jail?
I spent six years in solitary confinement before I was released in 2004. Earlier for two years I was a political detainee. Eight years --- that’s a short walk to freedom compared to Nelson Mandela’s 26 years! The harassment was small compared to Gandhiji’s , I was badly assaulted, and that is a reprieve compared to those who were shot dead okay? So you always look at things positively.
The first six months Mahathir denied me any reading material. But after that they slowly allowed under pressure from international media and I spent a long time reading the Islamic epics, Hindu epics, Chinese epics, western books. Other than Ramayana, Mahabharata, Gita and Gandhi, I read Shri Aurobindo whom I think should be popularized more. I read Shakespeare of course, the entire works four and half times, with copious notes.
Why did government choose sodomy to harass you?
You should ask Mahathir why he chose that. They chose it because they can’t pick one case of corruption- I was minister of finance for eight years, and they said I am traitor to the country and am a Jewish/ Chinese/ Hindu agent but finally sodomy was chosen - because this would enrage the rural conservative Muslim constituency. Secondly it is easier, there is no proof required to convict me, it is a matter of accepting the complainant’s view.
That’s what happened in the first case in (1998), but in the second case, they made a stupid blunder they brought in forensics, DNA and then we brought international experts to demolish those.
At one point you wanted a trial under Islamic Law?
I did that because they use Islam and they say you should swear by the Koran which to me is an insult. I am a practising Muslim and it is an insult to Koran to consider crimes to be resolved only by swearing on the holy book. You rape a girl and you swear by the Koran and you are free? What does this mean? Is this what Islam teaches us? I consulted all religious authorities and they said no, they said the only option is to refer the matter to the religious court. That’s why I decided to go there but they wouldn’t dare bring it up.
The government says the acquittal shows judicial independence?
The huge crowds outside the court is unprecedented, we had Malays, Chinese, Indians. When the verdict was announced people were embracing each other and crying, it was a beautiful scene of multi racial unity. I watched on TV and even police officers were laughing and shaking hands. The government says this is evidence of judicial independence. They exploited the verdict. But that is not at all the reality. One swallow does not a summer make. There was a public outrage, international pressure. Even the Washington Post wrote against my case.
What about the ruling United Malays National Organisation(UMNO) in Malaysia and your challenge to them? Your party already posed a challenge in 2008 winning some major districts. How do you see your future?
Yeah I must be crazy to challenge them (laughs)! In 2008 we won a lot of seats. In the last three years we worked very hard in the districts we have control and secondly made forays into other parts of the rural heartland and people do accept us. UMNO is seen to be by the more educated crowd as a party continuing with its obsolete ways and partly as authoritarian, The zeitgeist has changed, especially among the young. India is a democracy, Indonesia has transformed itself. The Arab Spring has its ramifications elsewhere. My old colleagues they failed to understand me, are they completely oblivious to the changes taking place? You see the same pattern- When Ali (Ben Ali in Tunisia) fell Mubarak said this is Egypt, we are not Tunisia. When Mubarak fell, Gaddafi said its Egypt it’s unique, different, then Syria which has a great culture and civilization was in turmoil and the Prime Minister in Malaysia said “this is Malaysia we are not Arabs.”
How has your earlier conviction and present acquittal changed things? Especially in the eyes of the people in the rural areas, will it have an impact?
Now the acquittal has reinforced our position, Even my last conviction did not affect me much. The acquittal has made it easier for us. While the government has been using my acquittal as an example of an independent judiciary. I say look you have been abusing me everyday for the last 14 years, and now I say you should be in the Opposition.
Is the sodomy charge used to harass people commonly in Malaysia? As a political weapon?
No, I am an exception. It’s a phobia created against me, a sort of xenophobia. You look at the media on prime time TV-- I am a threat to security, I am anti Malay, they say I went to India and attacked Malaysia. Once I asked the minister of information “can you give me one week's leave?” He didn’t understand , he asked me where do you want to go? He kept on asking – I finally said Shut up on Anwar in your TV network. The media is UMNO controlled, there is no freedom. The Hindu has been kind to me. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch played a major role in raising the issue.
UMNO has been speaking of reforms?
Even Mubarak used to talk of reforms to his son Jamal, Qaddafi used to talk of reform to his son Saif ul Islam. The most corrupt will be supporting legislation against corruption. We must measure change from actual reform and actual implementation of the reform, not pronouncements. If I am a rich man, I can pay 22 million US dollars to appoint an international PR consultant appointed by Sani Abacha and others- so naturally they must give him(the Malaysian Prime Minister) good advice- but should you be presumptuous and accept their version? No. You should assess by the performance what have they done- is corruption rooted out, is there a free media, is there an independent judiciary?
What is your focus in your election campaign?
We’ve spelt out efforts to promote growth- strengthen the market economy, a strong dose of affirmative action based on need, not based on race, judicial independence, free media, and no discriminatory practices against ethnic minorities. Islam is the religion of the Federation of Malaysia , yes, but you should not use that either that to compel non Muslims or to denigrate the position of non Muslims.
How does the regime treat any opposition?
Some time ago 300 students opposing the oppressive University College Act which bars students from taking part or giving any comments in political issues were beaten up by the police and we had the rally for fair and free elections which was roughly treated by the police. There are many cases of torture, apart from mine. People are killed or die in police custody or in the custody of the anti corruption commission- of course it is said that they are not killed, did not commit suicide but these are mysterious deaths. In my speeches sometimes I joke these people are not killed --they are looking at the door or the window- and they just walked out, and they fell, only the room happened to be 14 stories above ground. So stupid to expect people to believe these stories.
There is a public outcry on all this. A young Chinese party supporter fell from the 14th floor while in custody and another Hindu boy died in police custody. A Malay Muslim died after falling from the fourth floor while under anti corruption commission custody. When I was called by the police for questioning in this case, I said can we do it on the ground floor. Do you have windows or doors?(laughs)
You say the impact of Arab Spring will be reflected in Malaysia?
The night before this verdict 50,000 people came to hear what I thought was my last speech. On the court verdict day, it was a working day - people took leave and came to cheer me. I was arrested two and a half years ago, and put in a lock up on a cement floor for one night and then released, for no reason- other than abuse --they could have asked me to go to the police station for questioning. But the good thing is I have the humility now - that means your passion for justice becomes strong- if I can be treated that way- I am a known person , the world talks about me. What about the poor guys?
Are you going to sue or take action?
Do dictators ever apologise? The fight against corruption and scurrilous charges is like the battle by Krishna against an evil snake(as in Hindu mythology).
I want to move on and forgive them but this government shouldn’t be allowed to go on with impunity. How can I sue this government, I am planning to take over this government.(laughs) This is Malaysia. You don’t sue Hitler do you?
When I tweeted, I forgive, people said please don’t repeat that statement- people are angry.
Your wife has been supportive all along…
She became politically active only after I was detained but my daughter is in politics. The government prompted people to ask my wife --"why are you still with your husband? why don’t you demand a divorce?" Can it happen anywhere else in the world? That is the state of gutter politics in Malaysia - insulting human dignity and they call it moderate Islam.
I was badly assaulted and in pain but otherwise its okay. I survived reading , meditating, being patient, and the conviction that ultimately you will be victorious. The role my family, my wife Azizah and the children too played was remarkable. People prayed for me- it was amazing the support I had.
Is the current regime jittery after your acquittal? What are your next plans? And any learnings from India?
I will meet people and our party convention of the Opposition will soon announce its manifesto. India is a rare case with its penchant for democracy and unswerving commitment under all times - even in Emergency the judiciary had the courage to decide in favour of the Constitution.
I would like to replicate many things from India --protection of minorities, respect for human rights—am talking of replicating ideals, am not talking of the corruption(laughs). But India has a huge intellectual legacy, whatever you say the judiciary is still strong, the media is free, you have the right to protest, and growth is impressive but an issue I see is that the needs of poor and marginalised must be addressed..