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Paris, Friday, November 13, 1998

Anwar's Trial Brings Tactics of Malaysia's 'Special' Police to Light


By Thomas Fuller International Herald Tribune
KUALA LUMPUR - Towering above the courthouse where a judge presides over the trial of Anwar Ibrahim, the former Malaysian deputy prime minister, is a tall white building that holds an eerie mystique for Malaysians. It is called Bukit Aman, the Hill of Peace.

 Inside the structure, which overlooks downtown Kuala Lumpur, is the headquarters of the country's ''special branch,'' an elite, secretive police unit with wide-ranging powers.

 In the four decades since Malaysia's independence, the special branch has detained and interrogated Communists, religious extremists, opposition politicians, and more recently Mr. Anwar, who is charged with using his political influence to cover up alleged acts of sodomy.

 For decades, Malaysians could only speculate on what happened atop the Hill of Peace, but in the past two weeks the special branch has been forced to go public. Top brass from the agency testifying in Mr. Anwar's trial have detailed techniques used to interrogate witnesses and have openly said that they do not follow the rules in the Criminal Procedure Code that governs police conduct.

 Last week, the head of the special branch, Mohammed Said Awang, spoke about how his department ''turned over'' and ''neutralized'' witnesses - changing an undesirable stand or opinion.

 He said his officers would ''do a quick assessment on our target, then we see how the possibilities are to turn over their stand.''

 ''If it is a certain political stand,'' he said, ''we may neutralize the stand if it is a security threat.''

 Under normal circumstances, Mr. Mohammed Said's comments could be taken as sterile police jargon, but coming less than a month after Mr. Anwar described his detention in police custody - being beaten unconscious ''until blood seeped down my nose'' - the comments have had greater resonance.

 A 20-year veteran of the police agency, Abdulaziz Husin, provided more details on special branch techniques in testimony earlier this week.

 ''The continuous interrogation involves the use of rapid-fire questions to create a climate of fear as if a physical attack could occur against the target,'' he told the court.

 Some Malaysians say that the consequences of this extraordinary testimony, which is extensively reported by local newspapers, could be more important than the outcome of the trial itself.

 ''There's no doubt that there's now a greater degree of cynicism and skepticism about the impartiality of the police - and what should be the independence of the police,'' said Lim Kit Siang, the leader of the opposition in Parliament who was detained for 18 months during the late 1980s as a threat to national security.

 For years, political scientists have spoken about an unwritten social contract in Malaysia: Citizens accepted a powerful police force and government in exchange for stability and continued prosperity. The special branch formed an important part of that contract, serving as the government's tool to clamp down on dissent.

 There are signs today, however, that the contract is breaking down, especially when it comes to the police.

 Earlier this week, 36 human rights activists, journalists and lawyers announced a 75 million ringgit ($20 million) lawsuit against the police for illegal arrests and detention following a conference on East Timor that was broken up in 1996. Police had raided the conference, detained more than 50 Malaysians and had deported 46 foreign participants.

''We are trying to send a very clear message to the government that they can't illegally detain anyone and think they can get away with it,'' said Elizabeth Wong, a plaintiff in the suit.

 Perhaps another measure of disaffection with police tactics is the brisk sales of a book published several years ago about life under police detention called ''Two Faces,'' by Syed Husin Ali, a former anthropology professor at the University of Malaya who was detained for six years by police following his involvement in a 1974 student protest.

 Mr. Syed says he has sold thousands of copies of the book since Mr. Anwar's detention in September.

 ''The attitude in the past was that if the trusted leader said something that people tended to believe it,'' said Rustam Sani, a lecturer at the University of Malaya and one of the country's most influential newspaper columnists until a government-linked newspaper stopped running his articles in May.

 ''There's been a sea change in our political culture. This is happening at a stage in our political life when the demand for democracy has never been higher.'' The prosecution is attempting to prove that Mr. Anwar directed the special branch to obtain written retractions from two people who had made allegations about Mr. Anwar's alleged sex acts.