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Monday, September 13, 1999 Published at 16:32 GMT 17:32 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Malaysian PM defends judiciary

Jailed: Anwar Ibrahim's trial remains controversial

Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has defended the judiciary in the wake of the jailing of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, despite calls for a royal commission into the country's legal system.

Malaysia Crisis Section
Describing Malaysia as a democracy where the rule of law is upheld, Mr Mahathir told international lawyers that rich nations' perception of human rights had been distorted to cover only the freedom of political dissidents while millions of people remained in poverty.

The prime minister was speaking at the opening of a Commonwealth lawyers conference in Kuala Lumpur only days after Malaysia became the first Commonwealth nation in 50 years to jail a journalist for contempt.

The BBC's Frances Harrison: "Malaysia's judiciary has faced unprecedented criticism"
"Ideas about human rights are getting more and more peculiar," said the prime minister.

"Impoverishing millions of people, depriving them of medicine, even killing large numbers of them directly or indirectly are not considered violation of human rights.

"But arrest a political dissident and the whole world condemns the government for violations of human rights."

'Nothing to hide'

Anwar was taken to hospital on Friday amid allegations from his lawyers that he had become the victim of an attempted arsenic poisoning since he was jailed in April for six years on political corruption charges.

[ image: Hammering lies: Mr Mahathir says he has nothing to hide]
Hammering lies: Mr Mahathir says he has nothing to hide
But speaking to a 1,400-strong audience including some 29 chief justices and five attorney-generals, Mr Mahathir said: "If a favourite son or favourite leader is being tried and he is not acquitted, then the court is viewed as being not independent.

"But if I were brought before the court and the court decides against me, then the court is independent."

"We have nothing to hide, he added. "But open minds are necessary for you to judge fairly."

Royal commission call

Conference organisers said that many participants had only agreed to attend at the last minute after pleas from Malaysian lawyers not to stay away in protest.

[ image: Jailed: Murray Hiebert found guilty of contempt]
Jailed: Murray Hiebert found guilty of contempt
But Malaysian opposition leader Lim Kit Sianj refused to attend in protest at what he called the gaping gap between law and justice.

He called for a royal commission and a royal pardon for the Canadian journalist jailed on Saturday.

In a separate address, the president of Malaysia's Bar Council RR Chelvarajah said that criticisms of the judiciary had to be taken seriously.

Backing calls for a commission, he said: "These comments should not be ignored or brushed aside by castigating those who make them as meddlers in internal affairs," he said.

"Nothing is more debilitating to a nation than to have a judiciary which does not command the respect and confidence of the public."

Calls for journalist's release

The US and Canada have joined human rights groups in criticising Malaysia following the jailing of Murray Hiebert of the Far Eastern Economic Review.

Mr Hiebert, Malaysia bureau chief for the Hong Kong-based publication, was jailed over a January 1997 article which was alleged to have amounted to an attack on the judiciary.

In a statement, the White House said that the jailing would undermine press freedoms which play such a critical role in building a democratic society.

The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists described the jailing as an "outrage".

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