KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — For a conservative Muslim country whose censors cut kissing scenes from movies, the lurid sex and corruption trial of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has become an X-rated soap opera that is as titillating as it is embarrassing.
First, the nation watched in disbelief as Anwar appeared before a judge bearing bruises he said he received while in police custody. Demonstrators took to the streets in protest.
Later, Malaysians gasped as police officers hauled a mattress into court, where a chemist testified that 13 semen stains matched the DNA of Anwar, the nation's second-most-powerful figure until his firing Sept. 2. Police had withdrawn blood for the DNA tests under the pretense of wanting to check Anwar for the virus that causes AIDS.
Malaysians also have heard about trysts involving men and women in posh apartments, listened spellbound to the testimony of a woman whose affections Anwar allegedly spurned and blushed at the testimony of a chauffeur who said he was Anwar's sex slave. "We Were Sodomized," shouted one newspaper headline. "Sex Slave," said another.
Behind the "Peyton Place" plots is the political intrigue: an aging conservative prime minister turning his fury on the young liberal protege who dared challenge his leadership.
The prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, 73, says Anwar is not morally fit to serve his country. Anwar, 51, who contends that he is innocent of the 10 sodomy and corruption charges, says he is being framed and has sued Mahathir.
As the criminal trial was briefly delayed Monday by a bomb threat, a probe into the charges of police brutality continued. A police officer testified before a royal commission that the nation's top law enforcement official, Inspector-General of Police Abdul Rahim Noor, came to the prison soon after Anwar's arrest Sept. 20 and that screams were heard coming from the ousted deputy prime minister's cell.
Anwar testified before the commission today that he was beaten severely, while blindfolded and handcuffed, on the night of his arrest.
While Mahathir's reputation has been soiled by the confrontation with his former second-in-command, the nascent pro-democracy movement sparked by Anwar's arrest is practically stillborn, thwarted by the DNA evidence and by government efforts to make the trial open and fair.
The trial has dragged on for more than three months and is likely to last weeks longer, leaving most Malaysians utterly confused over who is guilty of what. But clearly Anwar's support softened after the DNA results became public.
"My heart tells me Anwar should be the one to support," said a 40-year-old attorney and former Anwar backer. "He's young. He's liberal. He represents the future. But after the DNA, I'm not so sure of his innocence anymore. I mean, DNA doesn't lie."
Much of the support for Anwar, once Mahathir's heir apparent, came from the mosques, because while Mahathir offered a modern-day interpretation of Islam, Anwar portrayed himself as a traditional Muslim, morally righteous, attentive to family values, obedient to the teachings of the Koran against alcohol, adultery and homosexuality.
His arrest was the catalyst for a mini-"people power" movement that shook this normally tranquil capital and at times turned violent. But the demonstrations have ended, and now only a handful of people stand quietly outside the federal courthouse to show support for Anwar. No one shouts for Mahathir's resignation anymore.
What deflated the pro-democracy movement, at least in part, Western political analysts say, was Vice President Al Gore's expression of support during an economic summit here in November for the "brave people" in the streets of this capital city demonstrating for reform. Gore was a last-minute stand-in for President Clinton, who had intended to deliver the same speech, Western diplomats said.
The remarks angered Anwar's supporters, who didn't want their movement to be seen as tainted with U.S. influence, and infuriated Mahathir, who considered them tantamount to meddling.
Within days, tiny Malaysian flags were flying everywhere in Kuala Lumpur, and several professionals who had been offered study grants in the U.S. called the U.S. Embassy to say it was not appropriate for them to accept.
American diplomats found that their calls to Malaysian friends weren't being returned, and the farewell party in December for U.S. Ambassador John R. Malott attracted "an amazingly low turnout," said one envoy who was there.
The pro-democracy movement also was defused by the fact that the government has met the criteria of human rights groups--Anwar's trial has been fair, diplomats say, and open to journalists, casual observers, and diplomatic and human rights monitors. Criticism that reporters didn't have access to government prosecutors led to weekly briefings for journalists.
Kuala Lumpur's three daily newspapers--at first little more than Mahathir mouthpieces--have found balance. They now print full transcripts of the proceedings and provide coverage that appears to favor neither side. A new TV show, "Dateline," offers panel discussions involving opposition groups--discussions that would have been unimaginable six months ago.
Associated Press contributed to this report.