Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad yesterday accused his successor of turning the country into a police state, and suggested he was personally involved in corruption in the UN oil-for-food program in Iraq.
Mahathir's remarks signaled a complete breakdown of efforts to end his bitter political row with Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. The two had met on Sunday in an attempt to resolve months of acrimonious attacks that Mahathir has unleashed against Abdullah's administration.
Mahathir told reporters that he spoke his heart out before Abdullah during their two-hour meeting but came away unhappy.
He claimed the government is preventing him from airing his grievances, and said police have pressured people who invited him to speak at public gatherings, including at branches of the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party.
"The habit of asking police to frighten people should be stopped," Mahathir said in his most vicious attack against Abdullah. "I consider this a police state. I also consider my civic rights have been taken away."
But he vowed to continue his virtual one-man campaign until "there is some change, until I see some results." Mahathir, however, stopped short of saying he wants to unseat Abdullah.
The Prime Minister's Office has indicated that Abdullah, who is known for his personal integrity, would not respond to Mahathir's comments for now.
Mahathir, 82, who hand-picked Abdullah to succeed him following his retirement in 2003, had himself faced criticism from human rights groups and opposition activists who accused him of clamping down on dissent during his 22 years in power.
During the last year, Mahathir has repeatedly accused Abdullah of compromising the country's sovereignty by scrapping a billion-dollar bridge project linking southern Johor state and Singapore, failing to protect national carmaker Proton from foreign imports, and promoting the companies of his son and son-in-law.
Yesterday, Mahathir widened the scope of his attacks, suggesting that Abdullah may be personally corrupt, citing a recommendation letter Abdullah wrote for a relative's companies that obtained contracts in the UN's oil-for-food program in Iraq which was later widely discredited for corrupt deals worldwide.
At the time the recommendation letter was written, Abdullah was deputy prime minister under Mahathir. Abdullah has acknowledged writing the letter but said he did not benefit from the deal.
Asked if he was accusing Abdullah of corruption, Mahathir said: "I don't know but how does he get involved with the oil-for-food business? He says he is not involved but his name is there as a beneficiary" in a UN report on the scam.
"As far as I am concerned it is wrong that a serving deputy prime minister should get his name listed among the companies which did oil-for-food trade with Iraq," he said. "You should not write letters of recommendation for your own relatives."
The UN-commissioned report named an Abdullah Badawi, without identifying him as a government member, as a "non-contractual beneficiary" in the oil-for-food program, but did not say how he might have benefited.
Many observers have said Mahathir is tarnishing his own legacy by carrying on such a bitter campaign in which Abdullah has largely remained silent and has been solidly backed by his Cabinet.