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Cabinet minister on trial for murder; Witnesses tell of black magic, torture

By SUSAN ROBINSON

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- The murder trial of a cabinet minister -- replete with dramatic testimony of black magic and torture - is providing Malaysians with a real life soap opera.

On trial is Mokhtar Hashim, Malaysia's 43-year-old Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports, who, along with three others, is charged with assassinating a political rival.

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If found guilty, the four men face mandatory sentences of death by hanging under Malaysia's strict gun laws.

Red-helmeted riot squad police circle the Moorish-style courthouse. Armed police prevent all but the defendents's immediate family from entering the courtroom.

But Malaysians avidly follow every word of testimony in their newspapers.

The prosecution alleges Mokhtar shot Taha Talib, former speaker of the Negri Sembilan State Assembly, three times with his own gun last April.

'This is a straightforward case of cold-blooded murder,' Attorney General Abu Talib Othman said in his opening statement Oct. 12.

Abu Talib said Mokhtar and the other defendants were 'greatly disappointed' when Taha was nominated to a local post instead of the candidate supported by the defendents and 'therefore planned to eliminate him.'

The prosecution accused the four men of driving to Taha's house in the early hours of April 14 and luring Taha outside to an ambush.

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'When Taha reached the spot where Mokhtar was waiting, Mokhtar shot at him point blank,' Abu Talib said.

The trial is being heard under special security regulations by one judge, sitting without jury.

Defense lawyers dropped their first bombshell two days into the trial when they charged that a statement by defendant Rahmat Satiman was obtained with 'a brand of torture that goes as far back as the Spanish Inquisition.'

Rahmat, a 54-year-old village headman, testified that he had been deprived of food and sleep, locked in a cupboard and beaten until he said what his interrogators wanted to hear.

The judge rejected the charge of torture and Rahmat's statement was read to the court.

The statement described how Mokhtar, Rahmat and defendants Nordin Johan, 33 and Aziz Abdullah, 65, hatched a plot to murder Taha with the help of black magic.

Rahmat said his job was to collect a magic potion and incense from a bomoh -- a Malay witchdoctor.

He said the bomoh instructed him to throw incense in Tahas path 'to make him weak', to burn another potion in the garden 'to overcome any magical power Taha might possess.'

The remainder was to be eaten by the conspirators so they would follow their plan to the last letter.

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The admission of the statement was a severe blow to the defendants who have all pleaded not guilty. Mokhtar has even refused to resign his cabinet post.

But the prosecution found the tables turned when a key witness, Abdullah Ambek, took the stand and retracted his earlier damning statements.

The middle-aged schoolteacher had admitted being at the meeting where it was decided to kill Taha, an elderly but still influential politician.

He had quoted Mokhtar as telling the plotters 'the police would be reluctant to take action against a minister.'

Abdullah also said he was at the scene of the slaying and heard the shots.

'I saw a gun in Mokhtar's right hand,' Abdullah's earlier statement had said.

His evidence was expunged from the records after he alleged that he was 'forced and assaulted' into making the statement.

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