KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian media photos showing “in camera” proceedings in the sodomy trial of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim prompted complaints of bias in the politically charged trial on Friday.
The graphic picture in Friday’s edition of government-controlled Malay language Utusan Malaysia showed a 24-year-old man, who says Anwar had sex with him, gesturing toward a bed.
The same paper on Thursday used language that was struck out of court proceedings after objections by Anwar’s lawyers in a headline that read “Not willing to be sodomised again,” implying that Anwar had sex with the man more than once.
The judge said Utusan had not broken reporting restrictions on a Thursday visit closed to the public and media to the condominium where Anwar’s accuser said he was sodomised in 2008, in a ruling that stunned Anwar and his supporters.
“We can’t even get a decent judgment over a basic issue like that,” Anwar told reporters after the trial adjourned. Anwar has consistently denied the charge, saying it is part of a political conspiracy against him.
All homosexual acts are illegal in mainly Muslim Malaysia and Anwar was convicted of sodomy and sentenced to nine years in jail in 2000 in a trial that drew widespread condemnation, although the conviction was overturned four years later.
Malaysian papers have lapped up lurid details from the current trial which on Friday saw Saiful’s underwear paraded through the court along with intimate swabs from his body, a pair of trousers and a tube of lubricant used in anal sex.
“Yes, my Lord, that is my Levi’s underwear,” Saiful told the judge. “That is the underwear I wore on the day of the incident.”
The sensational media coverage means the trial is also being held in the court of public opinion.
“Those in the rural areas who are influenced by the mainstream media will believe in the charge against Anwar,” said Anwar supporter Kashfullah Amaluddin, 37, who was at court on Friday and who said he had also been at the first trial.
“But for the middle class Malays and those who are exposed to more sources of information, they find it impossible to believe.”
Since his acquittal on the earlier sodomy charge and triumphant return to parliament, Anwar has harried the government into dismissing its prime minister, who led the National Front coalition to its worst ever showing in national and state elections in 2008.
The opposition has won seven of nine by-elections since then.
Malaysia’s main newspapers are owned by the government or political parties in the ruling coalition and they have had a field day with the graphic details of homosexual sex — just as they did during his earlier trial.
Online websites, bloggers, and the use of Twitter by Anwar from the court and from other opposition politicians, has provided some balance this time. But the detailed coverage spread over pages dominates the newsstands.
Absent so far has been the mass support that accompanied Anwar’s earlier trials, when tens of thousands of Malaysians left their workplaces to protest. Predictions that they simply do not care this time around may be wide of the mark, said independent political analyst Ong Kian Ming.
“Make no mistake, the public is very interested in reading and keeping track of the details of this trial, especially given the sordid details that have been and will continue to come out.
“My sense is that an explicit showing of public support for Anwar will occur only if and when he is convicted,” Ong said.
Key to whether the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak or the opposition prevails in a political battle that will culminate in elections that must be held by 2013 is the majority Malay vote.
Malaysia’s substantial ethnic Chinese and Indian voters have largely deserted the multi-ethnic governing coalition, leaving it locked in a battle with an Islamic party for the 55 percent of the population that is Malay and Muslim.
Najib’s efforts to win back minorities were dealt a severe blow by a series of firebomb attacks on churches after a court ruling allowed a Catholic newspaper to use the word “Allah” for god, triggering anger among some Malays.
Anwar has challenged Malaysia to abandon its embedded system of racial preferences for Malays, an attempt at positive discrimination that has been in place for 30 years but which critics say has engendered corruption and cronyism.
Najib has taken some cautious steps in that direction in an effort to woo back foreign investment for Malaysia, which saw the third-biggest outflow of portfolio investment of any emerging market in 2009.
At the same time, the government, led by Najib’s United Malays National Organization, has tried to portray Anwar as a “traitor” to his race.
“Politically, Malay support for him (Anwar) may be split because they don’t fully understand his ideas and some feel insecure at the prospect of minorities having more say at the expense of Malays, a view that is actively promoted by UMNO,” said Ibrahim Suffian of independent pollster, the Merdeka Center.
Writing by David Chance; Editing by Bill Tarrant