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Rebuttal to Josh Treviño on Anwar Ibrahim's Trial

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In Malaysia, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has been put on trial for sodomy. In the main, the Western political establishment is skeptical about the trial, believing it to be a politically motivated attempt to remove the popular opposition leader from the political scene before he can take power. As is the Malaysian public. Only 11 percent believe the charge, and 88 percent think it's a political conspiracy.

Public Relations professional Joshua Treviño has been on "attack-Anwar" mode lately, authoring several pieces in recent months critiquing Anwar and questioning his credibility in the West. In his most recent piece, Treviño doesn't come right out and say that the trial is genuine, but he does try to give a few reasons as to why we should question the conventional wisdom that the trial is merely a political maneuver to get rid of Anwar. Those reasons fall short. Let us look at them one by one.

In the article Treviño argues that Anwar's relative popularity in the West is based on the mistaken impression that he shares many of the West's political values.

But Anwar is popular in the West because he has consistently called for democracy, good governance, accountability, and dialogue of civilizations. Compare this to the current Prime Minister, or any of his predecessors, who have said relatively little about such things in Malaysia and done even less to reform a system saddled with endemic corruption.

What's more, if Treviño really had a good reason to believe that Anwar did not support such values, he would surely have used his article to say so. The fact that he did not take the opportunity implies that he knows that compared to his predecessor, Anwar does in fact share many of the West's political values.

If we look at the specifics of the trial, there are more reasons to be skeptical of Treviño's argument.

Firstly, he accuses the Western media of not taking the substantive accusations against Anwar seriously. He is accused of sodomy - a crime in Malaysia - with Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan, a young former political aide.

It is true that most Western media have not taken the accusations too seriously. There are three good reasons for this.

The first is that the Malaysian government has falsely accused Anwar of sodomy to remove him from the political scene before. In 2000, after feuding with Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, Anwar was publicly denounced by the Prime Minister as a homosexual, tried, and sentenced to fifteen years in prison - a punishment which under Malaysia law means he could not engage in political activities for five years after the end of his sentence. His accusers later recanted their accusations, saying that they had been coerced into making them. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both expressed doubts that he got a fair trial. And indeed, the year after Mahathir left office, Malaysia's highest court overturned the conviction, citing contradictions in the prosecution's case. Treviño concedes that the first trial was indeed a politically motivated plot by the government to get rid of Anwar. He also concedes that the reason most Western media are not taking the accusations seriously "lies in the circumstances of Anwar's first trial."

It certainly seems that way. This time, when Anwar had reemerged from the political wilderness as popular opposition leader and potentially the next Prime Minister of Malaysia, he was accused of sodomy again.

The second reason why the Western media have not taken the accusations too seriously is lack of evidence. At the moment, it is the word of the aide against the word of Anwar. Not only is there no substantial evidence in the public domain to back up the accuser's case, there are also medical reports in the public domain, which refute the accuser's claims.

The third reason is that the trial is being held amidst great secrecy, for no good reason. Today, over six months into the trial, Anwar Ibrahim's defense team is still denied access to documents, forensic reports, and CCTV recordings held by the prosecution. One has to ask why, if the government is really so confident of its case, it would want the trial to be subject to so little scrutiny.

Another reason to think that the trial is politically motivated is that the accusers cannot get their story straight about what Anwar did wrong. Treviño says that although Anwar "is on trial for violation of Malaysian anti-sodomy law, this is effectively ancillary to his alleged crime: a sexual assault."

Treviño does not explain why Anwar is not being charged for the main crime he is being accused of. He does not explain why, if the putative encounter was forced, medical reports conducted only forty-eight hours afterwards showed no signs of an assault. He does not explain why, if it was forced, Anwar - a man who can barely walk up the stairs because of the injuries he sustained in prison - could have forced himself on a man of twenty-three years. And he does not explain, given that the charges are for consensual sex, why it is not both individuals on trial to be consistent with Malaysian laws. In any attempt to defend the fairness of the judicial process, these are serious omissions.

Treviño argues that we cannot assume that the trial is a political plot because we are no longer in the Mahathir era (he does concede that the marginalization of Mahathir doesn't prove that Anwar's present trial is legitimate). Surely though, the trial and the way it has been conducted raises questions about whether the spirit of Mahathir has survived his Premiership.

The real point, though, is that it is not about Mahathir -- it is about the system as a whole. Mahathir may be gone, but his party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), is still in power, and the system even under Prime Minister Najib is generally unchanged. UMNO is primarily concerned with survival, and Anwar is viewed as the biggest threat to that survival. As a result, none of the democratizing reforms which Malaysia needs have been undertaken. The judiciary remains compromised, the press is shackled (three opposition newspapers were suspended in July, one was reinstated with restrictions), and the opposition, in general, faces a repressive environment including the looming specter of detention without trial under the Internal Security Act. This trial is just the latest incarnation of those facts.

Finally, Treviño argues that if the Malaysian government did want to marginalize Anwar, they would not do it like this, both because Anwar emerged from prison more popular last time, and because they would not want to draw attention to him. Treviño suggests that in fact, the current government probably just prefers that Anwar would go away.

On this, I think Treviño is probably spot on. As a popular opposition leader and main threat to their supremacy, they probably do want him to go away. And it looks very much like they have found a way to do it: trying to get him imprisoned on a charge of sodomy. Like last time.

Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.