The Asian Wall Street Journal
September 16, 1999
Anwar's Poisoning Claim Still A Mystery In Malaysia
By RAPHAEL PURA and CHEN MAY YEE  Staff Reporters

KUALA LUMPUR - A week after deposed deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim stunned Malaysians and the rest of the world by claiming he was being poisoned in prison, key questions about the bizarre affair remain unanswered.

The 52-year-old politician alleged through his lawyer last Friday that high levels of arsenic had been found in a sample of his urine secreted out of the country and tested in Australia. But that has yet to be confirmed or disproved by independent tests conducted this week at a government hospital where Datuk Seri Anwar is being kept under armed guard.

National University of Malaysia Hospital director Dr. Abdul Khalid Kadir was quoted in a Malaysian newspaper Thursday as saying that the test  results would "probably" be ready by the end of this week. But lawyers for Datuk Seri Anwar said they've been told nothing about the timetable for obtaining the test results.

Malaysian Inspector General of Police Tan Sri Norian Mai said this week that police are investigating the alleged poisoning. That would "take some time" because police intended to wait for the results of Datuk Seri Anwar's medical tests, he said. Police have disclosed no other details of the investigation. As of Thursday, police had questioned neither Datuk Seri Anwar - who formally lodged the poisoning complaint - nor his wife.

Trading Accusations

Meanwhile, both pro- and anti-Anwar forces in Malaysia's deeply polarized political arena are trading accusations over the poisoning claim. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad - once Datuk Seri Anwar's mentor and now his political archrival - has publicly denigrated Datuk Seri Anwar's allegation, contending that murder "is not part of our country's culture."

Other officials suggested that the charge was a publicity stunt timed to embarrass the government during the just-completed Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in New Zealand. But Dr. Mahathir's opponents - an opposition party coalition built around support for Datuk Seri Anwar - and some independent Malaysian groups have demanded the government account for
the alleged poisoning.

They have called for a Royal Commission of Inquiry to be set up to examine the poisoning charge, and Anwar loyalists are promising a fresh campaign of anti-government demonstrations this weekend to press their demands.

Datuk Seri Anwar's allegation has injected new life into a year-old political crisis sparked by his sacking by Dr. Ma hathir last September. Dr. Mahathir said he fired his former protege for immorality. The ousted politician subsequently appeared in court with a black eye and bruises. Malaysia's then-police chief, Rahim Nor, has since been charged with beating a blindfolded and handcuffed Datuk Seri Anwar on the night he was arrested.

Datuk Seri Anwar's removal and arrest sparked Malaysia's first street demonstrations in two decades. But the protests didn't save Datuk Seri Anwar, who was later tried, convicted and sentenced to six years' imprisonment on corruption charges. He is currently on trial on a separate charge of sodomy. Datuk Seri Anwar has maintained throughout the affair that he was brought down by a political conspiracy.

Hospital Stay

Since his poisoning allegation on Sept. 10, Datuk Seri Anwar has been held at the National University of Malaysia Hospital. The former deputy premier occupies a screened-off area in Special Ward I on the seventh floor of the cavernous new state-owned medical center in a southern Kuala Lumpur suburb. He is guarded around the clock by a small contingent of armed prison officers and policemen.

Lawyers for Datuk Seri Anwar say that hospital personnel took urine, hair and fingernail samples from the Malaysian politician for testing early this week. Neither the lawyers nor Datuk Seri Anwar have been told whether the analyses have been completed. Datuk Seri Anwar's lawyers said Thursday that Malaysian prison officials have not permitted Datuk Seri Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, children or other family members to visit him at the hospital since Sunday. One lawyer who was allowed to visit Datuk Seri Anwar Thursday described him as "weak."

Datuk Seri Anwar filed a report with Malaysian police on Sept. 10 alleging that an unspecified person or persons have attempted to poison him. The allegation was based on a pathology report from Gribbles Pathology Laboratory in Melbourne, to which a purported sample of Datuk Seri Anwar's urine had been sent in late August for analysis.

Lab Report

The Gribbles pathology report, relayed to Dr. Wan Azizah on Sept. 9, stated that lab tests found 230 micrograms of arsenic for every gram of creatine in the urine sample. (Creatine is a waste byproduct in urine.) The report also stated that an unexposed person normally would have less than three micrograms of arsenic, while persons exposed to arsenic in their work place
should have no more than 17 micrograms. Although arsenic is also found in seafood, 230 micrograms "seems way too high to be from a normal diet," said a pathologist from the University of Malaya, who asked not to be identified by name.

Arsenic poisoning is rare in Malaysia, local experts say. It is a tasteless, odorless poison, easy to mix in food and easy to obtain. It is also simple to detect, assuming a lab knows to look for arsenic. Lab tests usually take about a week to complete. High traces of arsenic in the urine would indicate a dose within the last two or three days before the sample was taken, said the University of Malaya pathologist. Otherwise, the poison would have passed out of the body. However, it remains in hair and nails, and lab tests on those can indicate how long the person has been ingesting arsenic. A high dose of the poison can cause cardiac arrest almost immediately, but smaller doses over a period of time cause symptoms such as weight and hair loss, exhaustion, and numbness and weakness in hands and feet. It's not known to damage any organs directly and its effects are

Administrators at Gribbles's laboratory in Melbourne said they do not disclose or discuss details of lab work they do for private clients.

Wife Became Concerned

Datuk Seri Anwar's lawyers say Dr. Wan Azizah, an ophthalmologist, had become increasingly concerned about what she perceived as her husband's deteriorating health in recent months. Datuk Seri Anwar complained to her of numbness in his fingers and rapidly thinning hair, they say. The former deputy premier has lost about 10 kilograms since being detained.

The poisoning allegation has focused attention on Datuk Seri Anwar's diet as the most likely source of the arsenic found in his purported urine sample. When he was detained almost a year ago, Datuk Seri Anwar was briefly held at police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur before being transferred to Sungai Buloh Prison on the northern outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.

Datuk Seri Anwar's lawyers and family members say the only food he has consumed on a daily basis has come from prison kitchens. They say the only exception has been food prepared at Datuk Seri Anwar's home and brought to him by Dr. Wan Azizah in the courthouse. On days when Datuk Seri Anwar appears in court, Dr. Wan Azizah and other relatives have been allowed to meet with him briefly after the trial adjourns and to share homemade snacks, such as cakes and banana fritters, a favorite of the deposed deputy prime minister. Family members reject any suggestion that the food given Datuk Seri Anwar at court might be tainted.

In Sungai Buloh, Datuk Seri Anwar is held in an isolated cell in the prison's "hospital block." He isn't permitted to mingle with the general prison population and eats his meals alone in his cell, according to his lawyers.

Typical daily fare is a breakfast of bread and black coffee served shortly after the jail's 6 a.m. official wake-up time, followed by identical meals of steamed rice, vegetables and fish served at noon and at 5 p.m. Fellow prisoners cook the food and serve it to Datuk Seri Anwar, according to the lawyers.

On Thursday, Sungai Buloh Prison director Mohamed Nor Murad declined to say specifically whether Malaysian police had questioned any prison officials or prisoners in connection with the alleged poisoning. Mr. Mohamed Nor, following a visit with Datuk Seri Anwar at the National University Hospital, would only say that the police "are doing their investigation now."