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Singapore’s Lee Has Anwar Opinion

August 17, 2000

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) _ In unusually frank remarks, Singapore’s elder statesman on Thursday criticized the way Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad handled his former protege’s downfall as ``a series of blunders.″

Known for speaking his mind, Lee Kuan Yew spoke at a news conference at the end of his first trip to neighboring Malaysia in a decade. But ultimately, Lee said, his sympathies lay with Mahathir _ not his imprisoned former deputy premier, Anwar Ibrahim.

Anwar was sentenced last week to nine years in prison after being convicted of sodomy, a term he will begin after finishing the six years he is serving on a corruption conviction. Anwar maintains the charges were designed to destroy him and end his challenge to Mahathir’s 19-year rule.

Lee and Mahathir hold authoritarian views of leadership, though both countries have democratic systems, and the Singaporean senior minister expressed sympathy for Mahathir.

``It was an unmitigated disaster, and I felt more sorry for Dr. Mahathir than I felt for Anwar,″ Lee said. ``I think that Dr. Mahathir paid a very heavy price. He made an error of judgment, several errors of judgment, which I felt were most unfortunate.″

Among them, Lee said, was arresting Anwar under the Internal Security Act shortly after sacking him as deputy in September 1998 following disputes over how to handle the Asian economic crisis.

The act is a British colonial-era relic in both Singapore and Malaysia, created for fighting terrorism. It allows for people to be detained without charge and both countries have invoked it on occasion against government opponents.

Using it against Anwar after he led a street demonstration calling for political reform was widely seen abroad as heavy-handed.

``Why did you arrest him under the ISA?″ Lee recalled asking when the two met at an economic meeting in Europe in 1999. ``How can he be a national security threat? I was flabbergasted.″

After Anwar’s convictions, the verdicts were criticized abroad by human rights groups and leaders including Vice President Al Gore. The view that Anwar was being persecuted was reinforced when he was beaten in custody by a national police chief.

Lee called the handling of the case ``a series of blunders.″

``I’m sorry for Anwar, too,″ Lee said. ``He was set as the deputy to take over, and now, all these things have happened, damaging both of them. It’s just sad.″

Lee also said he had a positive relationship with Mahathir, Asia’s longest-serving leader, despite their nations’ often prickly ties.

``We can speak quite frankly to each other,″ he said. ``We are of the same generation, we’ve been through similar experiences.″

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