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Kuala Lumpur, Feb 15 2007 (IPS) - By setting up a war crimes tribunal to ‘try’ those responsible for torture and death in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad may have scored a few political points, but he has also revived public memory of his own iron rule.
Mahathir announced the formation of the tribunal at the end of a three-day international conference that he organised in the Malaysian capital, last week, to ‘criminalise’ war. But embarrassed officials and indignant rights activists are still to come to terms with the idea of Mahathir being its leading light.
In a fiery opening speech, Mahathir slammed the United States President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his favourite regional whipping boy Prime Minister John Howard of Australia as war criminals who should be tried and punished.
He praised the ‘resistance’ in Iraq and declared that the only way the U.S. will withdraw from the country is for more U.S. soldiers to head home in body bags.
The conference, Mahathir’s statements and the Kuala Lumpur tribunal have all caused uproar, with some Malaysians saying Mahathir is unfit for the job while others praise him for “biting the bullet.”
His supporters see him as a hero who dares to take on the world’s only super power while his detractors say he is just a village bully shouting his head off to get attention.
In letters to editors and over the Internet, Malaysians are fiercely debating the merits and worth of the tribunal and Mahathir’s own ‘fitness’ for the initiative.
The Malaysian government itself rushed to put distance between itself and Mahathir’s blunt and even shocking statements.
Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said the conference and the tribunal were ”independent efforts”by the former prime minister – who retired in 2003 after 22 years of authoritarian rule during which he transformed Malaysia from a backwater country into an industrial powerhouse.
”I don’t think our ties with the U.S. and Britain will be hurt,” Hamid told local reporters.
As if on cue, Malaysian newspapers played down the “anti-U.S. rhetoric” of the conference which was attended by about 3,000 people including foreign peace activists, writers, lawyers and judges.
Like other ‘private’ war crimes tribunals, the Kuala Lumpur version is symbolic and does not have the legal authority needed to summon individuals or impose penalties.
It plans to hold name-and-shame ‘mock’ trials based on complaints by Iraqis and Palestinians against leaders like Bush, Blair, Howard and Israel’s former prime minister Ariel Sharon.
Mahathir said the tribunal was necessary as an alternative to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which he accused of bias in its selection of cases. “The one punishment that most leaders are afraid of is to go down in history with a certain label attached to them,” he said at a concluding press conference.
“We cannot arrest them, we cannot detain them, and we cannot hang them the way they hanged Saddam Hussein but we can label them as war criminals ..that’s how history will seem them,” he said.
”There are people who take the tribunal seriously,” he added, however. ”This is not a show.” But that is exactly what his critics are disputing – saying that the whole thing is a show and a political gimmick.
”The proposal for a war crimes tribunal in Kuala Lumpur is a farce and will make Malaysia and Malaysians a laughing stock internationally,” said Param Cumaraswamy, a respected lawyer and former U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers.
”It could deter respectable and credible foreign investors from investing in this country if our system permits such a circus to take place here,” he said in a statement.
Cumaraswamy said the Mahathir government did not sign the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court to try war crimes and genocide agreed to by most member states of the United Nations in 1998.
”He never bothered. The Malaysian government to this date is not a signatory to the statute,” he said. In numerous letters to the independent Malaysiakini.com news portal, writers criticised not so much the idea of a war crimes tribunal but that Mahathir is heading it.
”A tribunal should be impartial and have members with an unimpeachable record and with moral authority,” one letter said, accusing Mahathir of “dictatorship” during his rule.
”He ruined democratic institutions in Malaysia to such an extent that it will take generations to restore,” the anonymous writer said.
The writer accused Mahathir of ignoring the ”genocide in East Timor, supporting the junta in Myanmar (Burma), Pinochet in Argentina and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.”
“Dr Mahathir’s hands are not clean,” said human rights lawyer P.Uthayakumar. “The formation of the commission is excellent and we uphold and encourage it but it is embarrassing that Dr Mahathir heads it,” he said in a statement.
During his administration Mahathir kept up a hard line against Israel and Jews in general. He blamed Jews for the collapse of the Malaysian ringgit during the 1997 Asian financial crisis that wiped out billions of dollars in private wealth.
In his final political retirement speech he accused Jews of controlling the U.S. and unleashing wars across the globe for political domination and access to natural resources.
However, the sharpest criticism heard against Mahathir is for his sacking and ill-treatment in custody of his deputy Anwar Ibrahim.
Anwar spend six years in jail on charges of sodomy and abuse of power, charges that he said were trumped up. His trial was slammed as ‘kangaroo court’ and condemned internationally. Anwar’s convictions were overturned in 2004 after Mahathir left office and Anwar was released by the country’s apex court.
Many Malaysians welcome the setting up of the Malaysians war crimes tribunal which they said raised the country’s profile internationally.
”But we don’t want this commission to go the way of other war crimes tribunal established in Turkey in 2005 and Brussels in 2006,” said one human rights activist.
The Kuala Lumpur tribunal is headed by a nine-member panel of mostly Malaysians and is led by a former judge Abdul Kadir Sulaiman.
Many foreign participants at the seminar believed that something concrete may come out of the tribunal because it is led by Mahathir, a politician.
”Earlier conferences are normally academic, activist and theoretical – nothing ever happens…it’s all just talkàthis one different,” said writer and lecturer Kathryn Dyer.
Others felt that people’s tribunals were necessary because the international institutions have shirked responsibility and failed humanity. “We the people should find ways to readjust this failure. This tribunal says the people are uncompromising on punishing war criminals,” said Hana Bayaty, writer and chief editor of ‘Al-Ahram Weekly’ in Iraq.
”It’s necessary work. It’s the kind of work that will push the international institutions to perform the functions that they were founded for and not doing,” said Cynthia McKinney, former member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
”Dr Mahathir is admirable, necessary and competent. This isn’t hot air. This tribunal isn’t going to give up,” Mc Kinney said. (AP/IP/WD/HD/CR/DV/CS/BK/RDR/07)
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