For decades, critics have politely pointed to Malaysia as a country of parallel universes. Laws separate race and religion, and people who live and work side by side are forced to coexist within different worlds as defined by successive UMNO coalitions and at times enforced by the courts, civilian and Islamic.
Prime Minister Najib Razak has attempted to change this. He has announced a series of political and economic reforms that he and the reformers in his United Malays National Organization (UMNO) hope will make Malaysia a fairer and more competitive place.
The initiatives, however, haven’t stopped protestors like the Bersih movement from campaigning for free and fair elections. They also fear Malaysia won’t change, and will instead slip back to its autocratic ways, which found real traction under Najib’s predecessors, in particular former premier Mahathir Mohamad. His style of autocracy has never been far from the surface of Malaysian political life and was again on display in Kuala Lumpur in recent weeks when political mischief went on show in the guise of putting Western leaders in the dock through a court with no jurisdiction or legitimacy other than it being backed by Mahathir, who attended the hearings.
As an eye witness to war in Afghanistan and Iraq and the wanton destruction caused elsewhere by the War on Terror, I can testify to the sheer ferocity of the conflicts. There’s little doubt that a legal case against Western leaders for their behavior throughout the first decade of this century could be made. But the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal (KLWCT) is certainly not the answer.
In its final round of hearings, the KLWCT has found former U.S. President George W. Bush along with another seven associates guilty of crimes of torture.
It said the eight accused – Bush; former Vice President Dick Cheney; former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; former counsel to Bush, Alberto Gonzales; former general counsel to the vice president, David Addington; former general counsel to the defense secretary, William Haynes II; former Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee and former Deputy Assistant General John Yoo – had engaged in a web of instruction and directives leading to a common plan, purpose and conspiracy to commit crimes of torture and war crimes in relation to the War on Terror as conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Among the evidence provided, Abbas Abid testified his fingernails had been pulled out with a pair of pliers. Moazzam Begg told how he was kept in a hood, beat and locked away in solitary confinement.
The tribunal says Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld were aware that the U.S. had violated the 1984 Torture Convention and the Geneva Conventions but they had failed to intervene. This came after legal opinions asserted in their defense that the Geneva Conventions didn’t apply to suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees and that as such there was no torture occurring within the meaning of the Torture Convention. As a result, interrogation techniques which included cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, were actually allowed.
Unanimously, under KLWCT President Lamin Mohammad Yunus, a bench of five judges ruled the prosecution had proved beyond reasonable doubt charges of crimes of torture in accordance with Article 6 of the Nuremberg Charter. The court says it was following the Nuremberg model.
People inside the court also like to compare the KLWCT with the Russell Tribunal, established by the British philosopher Bertrand Russell and his French counterpart Jean-Paul Sartre to evaluate American foreign policy in North and South Vietnam after the defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
The KLWCT wouldn’t be described as a kangaroo court if it had any form of legitimacy. It does not.
But when following the proceedings in the mainstream press or through the national wires one could be forgiven for thinking that this tribunal ranks alongside the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia or similar international courts established to try those responsible for tragedies in Rwanda, Lebanon and the former Yugoslavia.
Indeed, the coverage has been unquestioning and has found friends elsewhere. The Tehran Times, for example, trumpeted the Malaysian verdict as: “It’s official – George W. Bush is a war criminal.”
It was a second KLWCT conviction for Bush. He and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair were last November found guilty in absentia of committing “crimes against peace” during the Iraq war after a four day hearing. It then said: “Unlawful use of force threatens the world to return to a state of lawlessness. The acts of the accused were unlawful.”