Missing Links

A Tale of Three Criminals

Vladimir Gusinsky is a Russian banker and the owner of NTV, an independent television channel with 100 million viewers. Saad Eddin Ibrahim is an Egyptian sociologist and the director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, a think tank in Cairo. Anwar Ibrahim was Malaysia’s deputy prime minister and, at one point, the heir ...

Vladimir Gusinsky is a Russian banker and the owner of NTV, an independent television channel with 100 million viewers. Saad Eddin Ibrahim is an Egyptian sociologist and the director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, a think tank in Cairo. Anwar Ibrahim was Malaysia’s deputy prime minister and, at one point, the heir apparent to Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s prime minister and Asia’s longest-serving head of government. All three have been vocal critics of their respective regimes. And all three had a tough summer.

On June 13, Gusinsky was imprisoned and charged with fraud under Article 159 of the Russian Criminal Code, which covers "misappropriation of property" and carries a possible sentence of five to 10 years in the case of serious violations. His arrest created an international uproar that marred President Vladimir Putin’s state visits to Germany and Spain. Putin said he was surprised by Gusinsky’s detention and disagreed with the prosecutor’s decision. A few days later, Gusinsky was freed and the charges were dropped.

One month later, and a continent away, Saad Eddin Ibrahim was charged with "forgery, fraud, taking bribes from abroad, harming the interest of the country and violating order number four of 1992, prohibiting obtaining funds from foreign parties without authorization." After spending 40 days in jail he was freed. A global outcry and strong expressions of concern by a variety of governments prompted Egyptian authorities to reconsider their treatment of Professor Ibrahim.

Anwar Ibrahim was not so lucky. On August 8, he was sentenced to nine years in prison. The judge also ruled that Anwar must first serve a six-year sentence imposed last year for interfering in the police investigation of the charges against him. Anwar had been charged with sodomizing his chauffeur and was then found guilty by the court of "carnal intercourse against the order of nature." The soonest Anwar can be released from prison is 2009, only to face a five-year ban on political activity.

The case of Anwar Ibrahim also created a strong backlash against the Malaysian government and Prime Minister Mahathir in particular. Despite Mahathir’s protestations that he had nothing to do with Anwar’s case, which he claimed the courts handled according to normal procedures, the international outrage and the domestic reactions have taken a significant toll. The responses at home and abroad to Anwar Ibrahim’s jailing and treatment helped erode the strong grip on power that Mahathir and his United Malays National Organization party have held for the last two decades. Anwar’s case even prompted Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father, to declare that Mahathir had made a huge mistake, one for which he would pay so dearly that Lee felt sorrier for him than for Anwar. 

The individual cases, not to mention the respective countries, of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Vladimir Gusinsky, and Anwar Ibrahim may be very different. But together, their recent travails highlight some emerging truths about the accelerating globalization of politics, especially about the new limits that governments face in repressing their more visible and vocal opposition.

In each case, the "defendants" were punished not for their financial, fiscal, or sexual misdeeds, but for their political behavior. Their status as political critics is what made their alleged crimes visible and in urgent need of punishment in the eyes of those in power.

Moreover, the governments felt compelled to hide behind sophisticated judicial fig leaves to go after their political enemies. In the past, they would have just thrown them in jail without worrying too much about their own reputation or their country’s international standing.

But even though Putin, Mubarak, and Mahathir tried to legitimize their actions with prosecutors, judges, and courts, they were unable to distance themselves from the legal terror their regimes use to deal with critics. And the world holds them accountable for it. Nobody believes, for example, that Mahathir could not release Anwar if he wanted to do so, that Mubarak played no role in freeing Saad Eddin Ibrahim, or that Putin cannot order his attack dogs to leave Gusinsky’s TV station alone.

Ironically, however, another common element is that although Putin, Mubarak, and Mahathir recognized the need to cover their tracks to fend off international criticism, they bungled their attempts to do so. The three leaders drastically underestimated the magnitude of the international reaction and the speed with which it spread. In Egypt and Russia, the governments had to back off and drop charges in a matter of days, while Mahathir still stresses that any questions about Anwar’s jailing should be posed to the judge and not to him. After all, he is just the prime minister, and the Malaysian judiciary is independent. . .

These instances illustrate the extent to which human rights have become a more important factor shaping global politics. Growing interdependence, rapid communication, and increasing intolerance for abuses have eroded the impunity that authoritarian governments used to enjoy.

Nonetheless, these three cases also highlight how quickly regimes with authoritarian propensities can learn to repress opposition without incurring the wrath of international public opinion. For all the uproar created by the cases, governments can still systematically silence a multitude of less prominent critics. Moreover, as Anwar Ibrahim’s family can attest, while international solidarity is nice, he continues to languish in jail. As for Vladimir Gusinsky, the Russian government will prevail in its effort to take over his TV station. His more intelligent enemies within the government quickly figured out that there was no need to throw him in jail; they merely had to pressure his creditors to strangle him financially. In short, repressive governments no longer need the secret police to silence their opponents. A good accountant is enough.

The documented ordeals of these three men are themselves a good example of globalization’s changing face. Against the backdrop of volatile booms and busts, globalization in the 1990s was seen largely in terms of economics; over the next decade, its impact will be felt increasingly in politics.

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