The defence case at the sodomy trial of Anwar Ibrahim, the former Malaysian deputy prime minister, was dealt a blow yesterday when the Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, was excused from giving testimony.
The defence has argued during the 10-month hearing, as it did during his earlier corruption trial, that the charges against Mr Anwar derive from a political conspiracy linked to his attempts to expose official corruption. The decision to allow Dr Mahathir to escape questioning in court means the collapse of the defence, which had argued that his appearance was crucial to their case.
Mr Anwar's lawyers said yesterday that their client, a former Mahathir protÃ©gÃ© before his dismissal in 1998, was so disappointed that he may abandon his defence. The trial is due to resume on Wednesday.
Arifin Jaka, a High Court judge, said: "There is not an iota of evidence by any witness so far to show Dr Mahathir was involved in a political conspiracy to topple Anwar and it would not be a matter for this trial, even if there exists such a conspiracy. I rule that Dr Mahathir need not testify."
Dr Mahathir dismissed Mr Anwar as deputy prime minister and finance minister in September 1998, saying he was morally unfit to succeed him and had sought to topple his government.
Mr Anwar was later arrested and charged with five counts each of corruption and sodomy. In April last year he was sentenced to six years on four counts of corruption.
In the present trial, Mr Anwar and his adopted brother, Sukma Darmawan, are jointly accused of sodomising the Anwar family's former driver between January and March 1993. The charge is punishable by up to 20 years in jail and whipping. Mr Anwar has denied any wrongdoing and said Dr Mahathir and his associates conspired to prevent him attaining power and exposing corruption and cronyism.
After Judge Arifin's ruling, Mr Anwar accused Dr Mahathir of lacking moral courage to take the stand. "So, the mighty supremo, having roared like a lion, suddenly turns timid as a mouse, shuddering [at] the thought of being questioned by my counsels."
Mr Anwar's lawyer, Christopher Fernando, said: "His chances of succeeding are next to zero, so why should he go on?" But he would advise his client to continue to press his defence, "to let the world and nation know what happened".
A court appearance by Dr Mahathir would have been the first face-to-face meeting in public with Mr Anwar since the latter's expulsion from the ruling party. The stand-off between the two has dominated Malaysian politics for the past two years.
Forty-eight people have been detained for the past week after taking part in protests marking the first anniversary of Mr Anwar's conviction.
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