Malaysian politician’s sodomy trial publicizes taboo topic

The coverage is exhaustive, the politics bare-knuckle, the details lurid, all played out in a majority Muslim country. Malaysia’s sodomy trial 2.0, in which the government is accusing opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim of engaging in a homosexual act with a 25-year-old former aide, has pushed media sensationalism here to new heights.

Sodomy, even consensual, is a crime in Malaysia under laws dating to British colonial rule. And the case, some analysts say, has desensitized the public to a once-taboo topic, especially the younger generation, in a society that has long prided itself on modesty and conservative values.

Late last week, the judge declined to recuse himself from the case, rejecting the opposition leader’s claim of bias. Judge Mohamad Zabidin Diah agreed to postpone the proceedings for five weeks, however, so Anwar’s lawyers could appeal.

This is the government’s second sodomy case against Anwar, 62, a former deputy prime minister who fell out with the nation’s long-in-power leadership in the late 1990s. Malaysia’s main newspapers, most of which are owned by the government or parties in the ruling coalition, have often led the graphic coverage.

Recent testimony by former aide Saiful Bukhari Azlan, who says Anwar forced him to have anal sex at a condominium in June 2008, was heard behind closed doors. But details have leaked to the newspapers.

The extensive reporting has made it difficult for citizens to avert their gaze, even if they want to, amid detailed depictions of men’s underwear, lubricant tubes, swabs and stained clothing.

Recent newspaper headlines include: “Anwar Hit on Me at Condo,” “Sodomy II Starts,” and “Not Willing to be Sodomized Again.”

“All these details,” said Rajan Palaniswami, 54, who works for a manufacturing company in Kuala Lumpur, the nation’s capital. “It’s a bit disgusting.”

For Anwar, who faces a 20-year prison term if convicted, there’s an element of deja vu. Arrested in 1998 after his political ties frayed with longtime Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Anwar was convicted on corruption charges in 1999 and on sodomy charges in 2000.

Appearing in court in 1998 with a black eye after reportedly being beaten by a senior police officer, his treatment behind bars helped inspire a new opposition political organization, the People’s Justice Party, initially led by his wife.

In 2004, Anwar’s sodomy charge was overturned and he was released. Although he was banned from running for political office for five years, he helped energize the opposition, which in 2008 won five of Malaysia’s 13 states, its best-ever showing, denying the ruling coalition the two-thirds parliamentary majority it had in effect held since 1969.

Since then, the opposition has won seven of nine by-elections, including one that put Anwar back into parliament, challenging the dominance that Malaysia’s main ruling party -- the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO -- has enjoyed since independence.

Anwar, who is married with six children, has denied the charge and says the case is politically motivated and designed to deflect attention from the government’s shortcomings, a charge Prime Minister Najib Razak and other top officials deny.

The human rights group Amnesty International urged Malaysia to drop the case after the court denied Anwar access to the state’s evidence against him, and the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy said the case has called into question the integrity of Malaysia’s judiciary.

Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who earlier accused the consulting firm of “talking through their nose,” defended the judicial process and questioned calls to drop the case.

“Let the court decide. We cannot say Anwar is guilty or not guilty,” he told reporters last week.

Legal records suggest that sodomy charges under Section 377 have been leveled only seven times in Malaysia in 70 years, according to, an independent Malaysian news website, with four of those charges being against Anwar.

“A lot of questions are going to come up about the evidence and whether this is a fair trial,” said Bridget Welsh, associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University. “The bottom line is, Malaysia is going after an opposition figure, no matter what may or may not be in the case.”

The publicity has made homosexuality a topic of mainstream conversation, analysts said.Although this was also true during Anwar’s first trial, the expansion of the media, Internet and social networking sites has made coverage far more widespread, they said.

“There’s some kind of perverse sense. In one way people are repelled but also intrigued,” said Ibrahim Suffian, head of the independent Merdeka Center for Opinion Research in Kuala Lumpur, comparing it to the Clinton presidency sex scandal involving White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Most worrying in the Anwar trial, some analysts said, is the effect on young students who are inundated by far more news coverage than were earlier generations.

“Everyone is talking about sodomy, sodomy, sodomy, from the supermarket to the kitchen,” said Abu Hassan Hasbullah, a University of Malaya associate professor of media studies.

A recent survey of 500 students by Zentrum Future Studies, a nonprofit research group started by Abu Hassan, found that more than 60%, including many in elementary school, knew what sodomy was, compared with a fraction of that before the latest trial. With knowledge may come a desire to engage in such practices, Abu Hassan said.

“Once you open this primitive gate of our culture, you can’t close it again,” he said.

As the proceedings drag on, many Malaysians appear to be in wait-and-see mode.

“My sense is, even among people who support the government, a good number doubt this is a real case,” said Ibrahim of the polling organization.

Norani Othman, a sociologist and founding member of SIS Forum Malaysia, a Muslim women’s organization, said some in the government may be playing dirty politics, but Anwar is being stubborn and vain.

“Whatever his sexual orientation is, I’d advise him to just let it go and resign so our alternative politics is not held hostage,” she said. “Whether Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress or the underwear here, they belong to the same rubbish bin of contemporary history.”