Defiant Anwar calls for reform

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THE FIRST policeman at Petaling Jaya Sessions Court, in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, said it wasn't up to him, and that we should ask his boss. His boss had another boss who, we were advised, was at the back of the courthouse. At the back they told us to look for him out at the front, but at the front, where scores of riot police were standing in line with their red helmets and thick batons, they didn't know where he was either. Eventually he appeared. We explained our plight, and he gave us an expression of helpless regret. He was sorry, so sorry, but it was impossible. There was no room for anyone else at the trial of Anwar Ibrahim.

This was frustrating because this most extraordinary of legal events had resumed for its second day. Mr Anwar, who a month ago was Malaysia's prime minister in waiting, was to face the tenth and last of a series of sensational allegations.

The charge sheet read out yesterday said: that in December 1992, "you deliberately committed an unnatural sexual act with Mior Abdul Razak bin Yahya". A man famous throughout the country as a devout Muslim is accused by his own prime minister, and former friend, of being a promiscuous homosexual.

On the previous day, Mr Anwar had created a stir when he appeared in court covered in bruises inflicted during a vicious police beating up. Naturally, every journalist in Kuala Lumpur wanted a seat for the second day. But the policeman's boss's boss insisted that - when family and friends and members of the public had been accounted for - there was room inside for only five journalists, all of them Malaysian. After an hour of alternate cajoling, flattery and tantrums, the quota was increased to ten, and I made my way into the court as Petaling Jaya's only foreign court reporter.

The first thing that struck me was that the court certainly was packed. There was Mr Anwar's wife and eldest daughter, in their white Islamic head scarfs. There were a few friends and relations, about a dozen altogether. But all the other people in the public seating, packing them out, eight to the row, so that there was no room for journalists, were stocky, muscular, bored looking men with sinister bulges in their waistbands.

If they were friends of the accused, it was strange because he didn't know any of them. If they were supporters, they looked surprisingly bored. A helpful lawyer enlightened me. "The 'members of the public' are, er, the Special Branch," he explained.

"Free and open, you see," said a uniformed policeman, "just the same as the British system."

And there are obvious similarities between Malaysian courts and those of the former colonial power. The lawyers address the judge as "Your Honour'', and one another as "My Learned Friend" and, although they have discarded their wigs and gowns, their dark suits and collars have the air of London's Inns of Court where many of them trained. But the two systems have diverged. Or, as another lawyer put it, less politely, "Malaysia has kept all the rotten parts of English law".

The Internal Security Act, under which Mr Anwar can be held without access to lawyers or family, survives as a colonial relic of the communist insurgency of the 1950s, too useful a tool against political opponents ever to be struck from the books.

The law against homosexuality is another example - still punishable by 20 years in prison and a beating with a rattan cane. The same penalty applies to oral sex.

There aren't many British barristers who will tell you, as a Malaysian lawyer warned me yesterday, not to phone him at the office because the line was bugged. And not many deposed British cabinet ministers would appear in court as Anwar Ibrahim did yesterday, still black and blue after 10 days, unable to walk properly and with continuing pain in his neck.

He has pleaded not guilty to all charges, and insists that the whole thing is a frame-up designed to stop him from challenging the 73-year old prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad. Whatever the truth, he is a very brave man. Ten days earlier he had been dragged from his home by armed commandos, handcuffed, blindfolded and punched in his eyes, nose, neck and mouth. Yesterday, he smiled and joked with his lawyers, with his family - he is a happily married father of six children. We were forbidden from speaking to him, even during the recesses, and until his wife smuggled out a note, we were reduced to communicating by sign language.

He tugged at his belt to indicate that he was losing weight. He touched his neck and indicated with a wince that he was in pain.

I whispered across what Dr Mahathir had suggested that morning - that he had beaten himself up as a means of getting attention. "Bonkers," he whispered back, and twirled his index finger next to his temple, in the universal gesture for "crazy". In desperation, I wrote the word "MESSAGE?" on my notebook in large capitals and held it up to him. He clenched his fist in a gesture of determination, and smiled. "Reform," he whispered.