After a 78-day trial, former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was found guilty Wednesday of four counts of corruption and sentenced to six years in prison. The verdict, which has triggered protests by Mr. Anwar’s supporters, was condemned by the defendant and questioned by others around the world. Malaysian officials have defended the trial and its conclusion. Unfortunately, serious damage has been done to the country’s international image. Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir may yet regret the chain of events he has set in motion.

Mr. Anwar, former finance minister, former deputy prime minister and Mr. Mahathir’s heir apparent, was arrested Sept. 20 and charged with 10 counts of illegal sex and abuse of power, the latter stemming from his alleged attempts to cover up the accusations of sodomy. (Although the six remaining charges have not been heard, they are likely to be dropped since the government has already obtained a conviction.) Mr. Anwar appeared in court nine days after his arrest with bruises on his face that he claimed were the result of a police beating — charges that were initially denied by Mr. Mahathir, but were confirmed by a subsequent official investigation.

The trial itself was a lurid spectacle. The court heard repeated allegations of sexual misconduct; at one point, a semen-smeared mattress was presented as evidence. The defense countered that the charges were the product of a political conspiracy at the highest levels of the Malaysian government, a line of defense that High Court Judge Augustine Paul would not let Mr. Anwar pursue. More astoundingly, after weeks of sordid testimony painting Mr. Anwar as a sexual deviant, Judge Paul ruled that that whole line of inquiry was irrelevant.

The black eye Mr. Anwar had when he entered the court for the first day of the trial is likely to remain an enduring image. Mr. Mahathir’s suggestion that the defendant had given himself the injury only underscored Mr. Anwar’s claim that he was the victim of a political conspiracy. The willingness of the Malaysian government to investigate the incident and reach the embarrassing conclusion that the former police inspector general was responsible for the beating is laudable; the continuing refusal to release the report is not.

This undercurrent of violence has run throughout the trial. It began when Mr. Anwar’s door was broken down during a press conference and hooded members of the special forces arrested him. The air of unreality continued as the first prosecution witness, a police official, admitted during questioning that he would lie under oath if ordered to by his bosses and later acknowledged that the police had techniques to “neutralize” the testimony of witnesses. It is hard to escape the conclusion that law has been subordinated to politics in Malaysia — the very defense that Mr. Anwar was not allowed to make in court.

Mr. Mahathir dismissed his protege weeks before the arrest, claiming that the charges of sexual misconduct rendered him unfit for national leadership. That is within his right as prime minister. Even if Mr. Anwar was punished for having crossed swords with the prime minister on economic policy, dismissal of a subordinate on those grounds is also Mr. Mahathir’s right. Moreover, although Mr. Anwar has enjoyed the support of many Western governments, other observers have questioned his performance as finance minister. Competence is one thing, however; bringing the resources of the government to bear against a potential political rival is another. And that is what this trial has come to resemble.

Under Malaysian law, Mr. Anwar is banned from politics for five years after his prison term ends. In practical terms, then, his career is over. His voice will still be heard. His wife has founded a political party, with the goal of establishing a multiethnic united front of opposition parties and nongovernment organizations. Reformers have taken to the streets to protest the decision and the government’s seeming politics of repression.

They are unlikely to topple Mr. Mahathir. He continues to be popular among Malays, who make up more than 50 percent of the population. He has 18 years experience leading the country, and he is a shrewd and powerful tactician, who helped turn Malaysia into one of the “tiger” economies of East Asia. The real threat to the prime minister’s continued rule is his health. He underwent a heart bypass operation in 1989 and was recently hospitalized with a lung infection. He is expected to triumph in the next general election that must be held before May 2000. But winning the election is one thing; restoring faith in his government — on the part of Malaysians and foreigners alike — will be much harder. If Mr. Anwar’s trial is over, Mr. Mahathir’s is just beginning.

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