Albright clashes with Malaysian Minister over trial of Anwar and visit to his wife


A bitchy public exchange between top US and Malaysian officials, raised voices among ministers behind closed doors, and water cannon and tear gas in the streets marked the first, messy, phase of the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) forum in Kuala Lumpur yesterday.

After a day's acerbic negotiations, APEC ministers achieved a compromise on trade liberalisation - the main purpose of the 21-nation organisation - with a decision to refer the issue to the World Trade Organisation. A press conference to announce the failure to resolve the issue themselves, attended by the foreign and trade ministers, degenerated twice into a spat between the US Secretary of State, Mrs Madeleine Al bright, and the Malaysian Trade Minister, Mrs Rafidah Aziz, over the arrest and trial on corruption and sodomy charges of the former Malaysian deputy leader, Mr Anwar Ibrahim.

Asked about her decision to meet Mr Anwar's wife, Dr Wan Azizah Ismail, Mrs Albright said: "The United States has made it clear many times that Anwar is a highly respected leader and we believe he is entitled to due process and a fair trial." She added: "The US is consistently concerned about the rule of law and due process for individuals in many countries. I believe it is important for the US to maintain consistency in its principles and, I hope, Malaysia as a host will accept what I am doing."

Mrs Rafidah, chairing the press conference, replied that every Malaysian was assured of a fair trial and "the US doesn't need to worry". She added: "Maybe if I go to the States, I would like to meet Ken Starr," the special prosecutor investigating President Clinton.

"But he is not in prison," Mrs Albright snapped.

"No, just to find out what's happening, curious," said the bespectacled Malaysian minister cheerfully.

Asked again about the issue, the US Secretary of State said she believed it was "perfectly appropriate" to meet Mr Anwar, to which Mrs Rafidah responded: "I would like to assure Secretary Albright, so that she can sleep tight tonight, that Anwar will get a fair trial."

Mrs Albright flew back early to the US last night, after less than a day in Malaysia, citing the Iraq crisis. Mr Clinton cancelled his attendance at the summit meeting of APEC leaders tomorrow to focus on Iraq, sending the Vice-President, Mr Al Gore, instead.

By supporting Mr Anwar, who was fired on September 2nd by the Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the US allied itself with his mainly Muslim supporters on the streets. Demonstrations calling for the end of Dr Mahathir's 17 years rule turned violent over the weekend. Two undercover police officers fired in the air to escape a crowd on Saturday night, and yesterday riot police fired water mixed with yellow dye and tear gas at 200 protesters holding up pro-Anwar posters in central Kuala Lumpur.

On Saturday, two Canadian cabinet ministers also met Dr Wan Azizah. Dr Mahathir denounced Canada's "interference", saying tartly "Considering that it [Canada] once belonged to the Red Indians, I do not see them being represented at APEC."

After the press conference, Mrs Albright left without speaking to Mrs Rafidah, but the US Trade Representative, Ms Charlene Barshefsky, kissed the Malaysian Minister on both cheeks and praised her for achieving the trade compromise over cutting tariffs in nine sectors, despite Japan's refusal to cut tariffs on fish and forestry products.

"One year ago we had nothing," said Ms Barshefsky, who reportedly had a volcanic exchange with her Japanese counterpart. "Two days ago we had the real possibility of having nothing. Now, along with 15 member-economies, Japan has agreed all, including tariff cuts and elimination in all nine sectors, going to the WTO."

The nine sectors are fish, forestry, environmental goods and services, medical equipment, energy, toys, telecommunications, gems and jewellery, and chemicals, covering trade worth $1.5 trillion (£1 trillion).

Before leaving, Mrs Albright indirectly criticised Malaysia's capital controls. "Our challenge now is to restore the flow of capital to the region's markets. We can't do that by closing those markets, throwing up protectionist walls or trying to turn back the clock. Nor can we simply settle for the status quo," she said.