Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Notes from a Show Trial

Fair trial or kangaroo court? Ben Bland reports from Kuala Lumpur on former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s efforts to criminalise war.

By Ben Bland for

Like any other exhibition, it starts at a ticket booth and ends at a gift shop. But rather than showcasing the usual collections of Impressionist paintings or dusty historical artefacts, this exhibition has a more macabre subject matter.

Entering to a surreal soundtrack of pre-recorded screams and John Lennon’s peace anthem, Imagine, you pass through a dark tunnel before emerging in a room containing ten makeshift body bags splattered in blood and fenced off with barbed wire.

A memorial to the 24 Iraqi civilians who were killed by US Marines in a 2005 incident known as the ‘Haditha massacre’, it’s the first of many gruesome, life-size displays depicting the horrors of war as inflicted by the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq and at the Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba.

In the rooms that follow, there are graphic reconstructions of detainees being tortured and abused. A particularly disturbing section features ghoulish mannequins that depict the extreme deformities suffered by some Iraqi babies that have been blamed on the use of depleted uranium in weapons by the US armed forces.

In an uncanny twist on the trophy photos taken by some abusive US military guards, visiting Iraqis take pictures of the hooded dummies tied up in stress positions, being electrocuted or subjected to water-boarding. A few Malaysian schoolchildren break down in tears and have to be comforted by their teacher.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo detainee, walked out after a few minutes.

‘I went into the exhibition with two other former Guantanamo detainees,’ says Begg, a 41-year-old British Muslim who was held for three years without charge or trial at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan and Guantanamo. ‘We all had tears in our eyes. No-one said a word for five minutes and then I walked out. It brought back the isolation and the humiliation of the prison cells.’

‘The harsh reality is that what you see in there is just a glimpse. If you think it’s too much, it shows just how detached people are from the realities of war,’ he adds.

The exhibition was part of a four-day conference held in Kuala Lumpur late last month as part of an ongoing mission by outspoken former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to ‘criminalise war’.

The conference culminated in two days of hearings by the self-named ‘Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal’, which is attempting to try former US president George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair with war crimes over the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

During 22 years as prime minister, Mahathir was an outspoken voice for the developing world, clashing frequently with Western leaders and institutions.

He attacked globalization, criticized US foreign policy in the Middle East and rejected the strictures of the International Monetary Fund at the height of the Asian financial crisis in 1997, which he blamed variously on Jews, the financier George Soros and international currency trading.

Since his departure from political office in 2003, the 84-year-old has taken the advice of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and refused to ‘go gentle into that good night’. He has mounted regular, stinging attacks on his successors Abdullah Badawi and Najib Razak on his popular blog Che Det. Meanwhile, he has become an ever more strident critic of the United States and Israel, promoting his beliefs that the September 11, 2001 attacks were some form of conspiracy and that Jews ‘rule the world by proxy’.

However, Mahathir insists that his latest gambit–attempting to bring Bush and Blair to book-isn’t part of some anti-Western mission.

‘The focus is on the US principally because they are the main players in Iraq,’ he says before the first sitting of the tribunal. ‘America and Britain launched this war and the world should regard these people [Bush and Blair] as criminals.’

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

While the tribunal has no official international status, Mahathir insists that it will follow proper judicial process as it investigates the roles of the US and British government in the deaths of thousands of civilians in Iraq, the use of detention without trial and the torture and abuse of prisoners.

The Kuala Lumpur tribunal, which was adjourned until a later, unspecified date after the preliminary proceedings closed on October 31, is inspired by a similar body set up by philosophers Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre in 1966 to investigate possible war crimes committed by the US military in Vietnam.

The so-called Russell Tribunal was laughed off by many as a powerless show trial. The organizers of the Kuala Lumpur tribunal have gone to some lengths to ensure that it is taken more seriously, recruiting two senior ex-UN officials, Hans von Sponeck and Denis Halliday, to the investigatory war crimes commission, appointing seven experienced lawyers from the United States, India and Malaysia to preside as judges, and drawing up a 111-page procedural charter.

However, any attempt to garner credibility in the wider world was undermined by the acerbic anti-American and anti-Israeli tone of the conference and the promotion of oddball conspiracy theories by many of the speakers.

Some blamed the proliferation of modern warfare on ‘Jewish bankers’ and called for a renewal of the violent struggle against the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gajdenra Singh, a former Indian diplomat, declared that ‘the majority of the criminals and mischief-makers are Jews, whether in banks or government’, while Leuren Moret, a US nuclear weapons scientist turned whistleblower, claimed that the recent earthquakes in Sumatra and Kashmir were ‘manipulated by the military’.

More than 3000 people attended the free conference at Kuala Lumpur’s Putra World Trade Centre, many of them Muslims, who make up the majority of the population in Malaysia. Judging by the warm applause accorded to these speakers, such views were not only deemed uncontroversial but even praiseworthy–a sign of the entrenched hostility and suspicion toward the United States and Israel in the Islamic world.

Wrong Place at the Wrong Time?

On the night of 31st January 2002, Moazzam Begg was at home with his wife and children in Islamabad when a group of unidentified, masked men burst through his door. They forced him to the ground at gunpoint, hooded and shackled him, bundled him into the back of a car and whisked him away to Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan.

So began three years of mostly solitary detention at the hands of the US government, with the complicity of Begg’s own British government. Like most other detainees who were subsequently moved to Guantanamo Bay, he was never tried or even charged with any crime.

‘I’ve never been to America, but America has been to me and shown me a face that I never knew existed,’ the soft-spoken 41-year-old tells the war crimes commission.

Begg is the first witness to give evidence to the commission, which will investigate allegations of war crimes by Bush and Blair before passing on its findings to the tribunal judges.

Several hundred people are packed into the chandelier-clad Tun Dr Ismail ballroom at the Putra World Trade Centre, which has been laid out to resemble a courtroom.

Although the tribunal’s organizers had done their best to uphold normal court etiquette, their efforts were thwarted by the vicissitudes of Malaysian timekeeping. Although members of the public were asked to be seated by 8.45 am ahead of a 9 am sharp start, people were still filing in noisily at 9.20 am. The piped-in conference Muzak, more appropriate for a convention of IT managers than a supposed war crimes tribunal, hardly added to the sense of austerity.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

But Begg’s crisp yet harrowing testimony restored the balance. The Pentagon has repeatedly dismissed allegations that it condoned and even encouraged the routine torture of detainees.

However, Begg described how he was frequently punched, kicked and spat at by his guards. He was interrogated for hours on end, sometimes all night, in excruciatingly uncomfortable stress positions with guns pointed at his head.

Putting the question of explicit torture aside, he said even the heavy-handed manner in which he and other detainees were restrained was inhuman and unbearable. On the long flight from Bagram to Guantanamo, Begg said he had his hands and feet cuffed and shackled together before being chained to the floor of the US military plane. Forced to wear ear defenders and a black-out face mask, he was so distressed that he pleaded with his captors to give him a sedative.

They relented and he woke up, in a daze, in solitary confinement at Guantanamo.

Although he is eventually said to have signed a pre-prepared confession stating that he was a member of al-Qaeda, Begg has always insisted that he went to Kabul in 2001 as a charity worker to help educate the girls who were denied access to schools by the Taliban government. ‘I signed under the threat of being tried by a military tribunal and executed,’ he says.

As he concluded his testimony, Begg made a plea to the commission to forge ahead with the trial in spite of its detractors.

‘What they have done to us is not only illegal but immoral and duplicitous. When the world’s most advanced nations band together to fight people like me, it’s only to places like this commission that we can turn to seek a semblance of justice.’

After Begg, a number of other former detainees at Bagram, Guantanamo and Baghdad’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison take the stand. They include Ruhal Ahmed, one of three British Muslims known as the ‘Tipton Three’ who were detained while, they claimed, on holiday in Afghanistan, and Sami Al-Hajj, a Sudanese cameraman who was seized while on his way into Afghanistan on assignment for Al-Jazeera, the Arabic TV news station.

All of the eight commissioners are volunteers and like many of those involved in the Kuala Lumpur tribunal, most of them are members of Mahathir’s Perdana Global Peace Organization.

For the most part, they give the witnesses an easy ride, allowing them to re-tell their stories of persistent abusive and humiliating treatment without challenging them on the reasons for their initial detention.

Anxious to uphold the perception of fairness, one of the commissioners, Hans von Sponeck, takes Ahmed to task over his rather weak explanation for his decision to visit Afghanistan on the eve of the US military offensive in 2001.

‘Your argument that you went into Afghanistan on a little outing at that time is not very convincing. Please explain this. It’s in our interest and yours that you’re honest with us.’

Slightly taken aback by this unexpected cross-examination, a nervous Ahmed, who was 18 when he was seized, insists that he was ‘not particularly aware of the situation between US and the Taliban’.

‘Our main aim was to enjoy our time and smoke to be frank. I didn’t feel that I was entering a danger zone’.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

What Ahmed omitted to mention was that, after undergoing a lie detector test on a British TV programme in 2007, he admitted to attending an Islamist training camp during his stay in Afghanistan and handling weapons.

Von Sponeck’s brief interlude aside, it was clear that the commissioners had little desire to examine the veracity of the claims by the witnesses. Critics who believe this is nothing more than a kangaroo court would probably say it was the exception that proved the rule.

Conspiracy Theories

Around the corner from the room where the tribunal was in session, volunteers at a stall were selling a range of books and DVDs. Unsurprisingly, there were a large number of works dealing with the great deeds and thoughts of one Mahathir Mohamad. There were also many books and films promoting conspiracy theories that variously blamed Israel, Mossad and Zionists for just about everything from the assassination of JFK to the growth of the arms industry and even the September 11 attacks.

To the majority of attendees and speakers at the conference, these ideas were not contentious.

Mahathir himself expressed surprise at the way in which the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York had collapsed straight down ‘as if they had explosives attached and it was a programmed demolition’.

Such wild conspiracy theories, which also have many adherents in the US, are one thing. But the bald anti-Semitism that is often woven into these conspiracies is quite another.

Sanusi Junid, a former agriculture minister and close Mahathir ally, used his speech on ‘peace and justice’ to outline his theory of how evil bankers had assassinated US presidents from Abraham Lincoln to JFK and committed countless other heinous acts to maintain their control of the world. For most of his speech to a conference hall packed with more than 1000 people, he resisted the urge to equate bankers with Jews. But he cracked toward the end.

‘If we’re not careful, even Islamic banking will be taken over by the Zionist Jewish bankers,’ he said to laughter and applause.

Some speakers were uneasy with these anti-Semitic sentiments. George Galloway, a left-wing British MP who was expelled from the ruling Labour party in 2003 because of his fervent opposition to the Iraq war, felt compelled to speak out against the Indian diplomat’s suggestion that Jews were ‘criminals and mischief-makers’.

‘Our struggle isn’t against the Jews,’ he said. ‘Let’s never slip into the mistake of implying we’re against the Jews.’

Later, while smoking the stub of Cuban cigar in his trademark pinstripe suit, Galloway admitted there was a danger that some of the more extreme rhetoric would put off potential mainstream supporters of Mahathir’s anti-war movement.

‘We need to find a language and a narrative that reaches the parts of the polity that have not yet been reached.’

But Galloway is no peacenik. During his own conference address, which was delivered with his usual rabble-rousing gusto, he praised the military wing of Hezbollah, the Islamist movement based in Lebanon, for ‘teaching Israel a lesson’ during their violent clashes in 2006.

‘Individual men and women in bare feet and sandals and with their Kalashnikovs and determination to defend their country can still defeat them as they have done in Iraq,’ he said.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Expanding on his philosophy during a calmer, one-on-one discussion, he explained that while ‘the making of aggressive war is the greatest crime of all’, people had a legal and moral right to defend themselves in the face of occupation.

This doctrine of resistance was shared by Dr Khudhayer Al-Murshidy, another odd choice for a speaker at an anti-war conference. A doctor by training, he is now the official representative of one of Iraq’s myriad of armed resistance groups, the Iraqi Patriotic, National and Islamic Front.

Flanked by two broad-shouldered colleagues of menacing appearance but pleasant manner, the former professor of haematology at the University of Baghdad told me at length how the US invasion had destroyed his country.

‘The war by the US and its allies had been disastrous for the state and society, with many breaches of human rights, many people killed and the economy in complete failure. The occupation of Iraq is illegal and based on lies about weapons of mass destruction and the promotion of democracy. The only legitimate thing in Iraq now is the resistance.’

When I asked who he thought was behind the massive car bombings in Baghdad that had killed more than 100 people the previous weekend (attributed in news reports to al-Qaeda in Iraq) and whether such action was justified, he blamed the Americans and the Iraqi government.

‘The resistance is targeted at the occupation only and its infrastructure. There’s no relationship between the resistance and explosions aiming to kill innocent Iraqi people. These innocent killings are a plan by the occupiers and their gangs, militias and death squads.’

Questionable Messenger

Sitting in the courtroom and listening to the former detainees recount their tales of extrajudicial detention and abuse, it is hard to argue with Mahathir’s anti-war initiative or his attempt to bring those responsible for Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and extraordinary rendition to account.

Mahathir compares his drive to criminalise war to the successful campaign by William Wilberforce, the British politician and philanthropist, to abolish the slave trade.

‘Slavery was once widespread and it was considered neither morally wrong nor a crime. But public opinion can change, even if it may take years.’

Few would disagree with his insistence that aggressive wars are a crime against humanity and his logic that if the murder of one individual is considered immoral and illegal, then the killing of thousands ought to be regarded as mass murder.

The problem is not so much the message as the messenger.

Mahathir has been an outspoken supporter of Malaysia’s own Guantanamo, the Kamunting Detention Centre, where suspected terrorists, political opponents and critical journalists have been held without charge or trial thanks to the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) bequeathed by the British.

Human rights campaigners and legal experts have also attacked Mahathir for promoting his own unilateral tribunal despite the fact that he refused to sign Malaysia up to the International Criminal Court in 1998.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Several Malaysians I spoke to at the conference expressed anger, although not surprise, at Mahathir’s apparent hypocrisy in railing against the United States’ use of detention without trial while insisting that the Malaysian government’s use of similar methods is acceptable.

But, in the closing press conference, Mahathir gave such criticism short shrift. ‘Between us and the Americans, they are worse. Our law doesn’t allow torture, unlike the US.

Regardless of Malaysian law, many of those detained at Kamunting under the ISA claim to have suffered torture and abuse.

Mahathir has always had an eye for the bigger picture and his desire to call the United States to account over its foreign policy in the Middle East is not likely to be sidetracked by such mere details. Mahathir’s influence in Malaysian politics has declined sharply in the last couple of years and the war crimes tribunal and anti-war movement perhaps represents a final chance for the elder statesman to rally his closest supporters around him and to make a difference, as he sees it.

While Mahathir’s tribunal has not yet been taken seriously enough to elicit any official response from the British or US governments, he is, as ever, not deterred by those who dismiss his efforts.

Accepting the limitations of the process, he insisted that the tribunal’s eventual conclusions would be backed by the weight of moral, if not physical, force.

‘We believe that eventually the peoples of the world will come to accept that war is a crime and will condemn the warmongers and regard them as criminals,’ he said. ‘And when this happens we may see the world becoming a more peaceful place.’