Like it or not, the government of the United States has publicly and officially reaffirmed its commitments to human rights amid the global war on terrorism, and also called on all its "friends to practise the highest standards of human rights behaviour."

In an extensive and in-depth interview with the Far Eastern Economic Review on July 29, US Secretary of State Colin Powell said: "The United States will not step back from its strong commitment to human rights."

A day later, Powell, after meeting Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his deputy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, told a press briefing, "We still believe strongly in human rights and everything we do has to be consistent with universal standards of human rights."

According to a State Department record Washington File dated July 30, Powell included in his discussion with Mahathir and Abdullah the "support for human rights in the context of counter-terrorism efforts."

The reaffirmed commitment was translated into the reiteration of the official and bipartisan position in the US that former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim was still a "political prisoner" and the judicial process he went through was "flawed".

Earlier, the European Union also issued a statement expressing "disappointment" at the Federal Court's rejection of Anwar's appeal against his corruption charge last month.

Islamic fundamentalist

According to the ex-deputy premier's wife, Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who met Assistant State Secretary (Bureau of East Asian & Pacific Affairs) James Kelly on July 30 at a breakfast meeting, Kelly told her that the US government also "supports his ( her husband's) right to seek treatment overseas".

Azizah, who is also the president of Keadilan, quoted Kelly as saying the case of the six reformasi activists detained under the Internal Security Act "will be on the agenda" in the meeting between Powell and Mahathir.

She also revealed that the Director for Asian Affairs of the US National Security Council, Karen B Brooks, and the US envoy to Malaysia, Marie T Huhtala were also present at the breakfast meeting.

The US National Security Council, founded under President Truman in 1947, is a coordinating unit in the White House that synchronises inputs from the foreign affairs, intelligence and defence communities of the US, and advices the president on foreign affairs and national as well as international security.

In fact, despite the many unilateral assertions and repeated claims made by the official media and pro-government think tanks in Malaysia, US has never altered its position on Anwar since former Vice President Al Gore made his well-publicised 'Brave Malaysians and Reformasi' speech in Kuala Lumpur in Nov 1998.

There was, however, hope in Malaysia that with the electoral defeat of Democrat Al Gore in the American presidential election in 2001, the new Republican president, George W Bush would reverse the official position.

Mahathir, for example, publicly expressed his preference for candidate George W Bush during the campaign.

It seems there were also attempts and efforts made by Mahathir's government to engage the services of American lobbyists to paint Anwar as an 'Islamic fundamentalist' in order to effect a reversal of the American position, especially in the aftermath of the Sept 11 terror attacks.

For example, one Amy Ridenour wrote an article in the right-wing Washington Times last year, alleging that Anwar was an 'Islamic fundamentalist'. Another American Muslim leader also insinuated that "a former Malaysian minister" donated money to "radical Muslims" in the United States.

American ally

Meanwhile, Mahathir quickly positioned himself as an 'ally' of the US, although he also objected to the security operations in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Besides exploiting the global fear against all things Islamic to paint PAS and its supporters as "terrorists", he manipulated what he perceived to be the changed psychology of US to re-justify repression against the opposition, the Internal Security Act and all the other measures he had taken in the name of 'national security'.

However, the hope of exploiting the Sept 11 tragedy and the American fury was frustrated again and again.

This was evidenced by the appointment of Marie T Huhtala as the new US Ambassador to Malaysia.

Prior to the confirmation of her appointment, Huhtala who holds a masters degree in political science and a graduate of the US National War College told a Senate confirmation hearing that she was concerned with Anwar's case and with political institutions in Malaysia.

In January this year, the newly arrived US envoy told malaysiakini in an exclusive interview that her government believes that Anwar's trial was flawed and could be "corrected" in the appeal process.

The 2001 Human Rights Report of the State Department, released in March this year regards Anwar as a political prisoner, in black and white.

Invited by the Malaysian Armed Forces Defence College to speak on the theme 'US Foreign and Defense Policy, Political and Economic Trends' on April 17, she told the audience, "Our emphasis on counter-terrorism does not mean the US has suddenly consigned human rights to a secondary role in our foreign policy. The United States believes that democracy, individual freedom and winning the war on terrorism are intertwined".

She also quoted Powell as saying, "The United States welcomes the help of any country ... that is genuinely prepared to work with us to eradicate terrorism" but "at the same time, we will not relax our commitment to advancing the cause of human rights and democracy".

US stand remains

Her position was reiterated by none other than President Bush himself.

Bush told a press conference during Mahathir's visit to the White House on May 14 that the US has not changed its position that Anwar was jailed primarily for his political opposition to the prime minister.

Seen in a more clear-eyed perspective, it is abundantly evident that the US has not changed its position on Anwar and human rights issues in Malaysia, despite the change of occupant in the White House as well as top officers in the Pentagon, State Department, National Security Council and the American embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

The terrorist attacks on the American homeland last September, and the hopes, claims and assertions expressed tough-mindedly by members of the Malaysian government, official press and think tanks have also failed to induce a reversal of the American position.

It is clear by now that Anwar is, at least, not a 'Islamic fundamentalist' as alleged by Amy Ridenour and other strange bedfellows and fellow travellers of Mahathir.

JAMES WONG WING ON, chief analyst of Strategic Analysis Malaysia , is a former Member of Parliament (1990-1995) and a former columnist for the Sin Chew Jit Poh Chinese daily. He read political science and economics at the Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. While in Sin Chew , he and a team of journalists won the top awards of Malaysian Press Institute (MPI) for 1998 and 1999.

Strategic Analysis Malaysia

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