March 7, 2014
Today’s conviction of Malaysia’s opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, for sodomy in a clearly politically motivated trial, may well backfire on the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition and bring its downfall in the next elections.
A Court of Appeal in Kuala Lumpur today upheld an appeal by the state, overturned Anwar’s 2012 acquittal by the High Court, and sentenced him to five years in prison for sodomizing an aide, Mohd Saiful Bukairy Azlan. Anwar is free on bail and expected to take his final line of recourse to the Federal Court.
The judicial persecution of Anwar by the government has been going on for 16 years with fabricated allegations of sodomy and corruption. But they have failed to undermine his political credibility and the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition, led by Anwar, continues to gather popular support.
In the last election in May last year, Anwar’s coalition won the popular vote, but did not win enough parliamentary seats to evict the Barisan Nasional, which has ruled Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957. The decision to appeal Anwar’s acquittal carries an air of desperation around the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak. Najib faces growing opposition from within his own party because of his tepid performance in elections. There are unanswered allegations of bribery in the purchase of French submarines when Najib was defence minister, a saga that involved the murder of a Mongolian model who had been the mistress of his chief advisor.
Despite Anwar’s determination to appeal today’s conviction, it may scupper his plans to boost his public profile and reputation ahead of the next national elections in 2018.
Anwar is planning to run in a by-election for the post of Chief Minister – the equivalent of a provincial premier or state governor in other countries – in Malaysia’s most populous and wealthy Selangor State. It is now for the Election Commission to decide if Anwar is eligible to run in that by-election next week.
This is the latest chapter in a story of the unremitting passion for vengeance against Anwar by Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and other senior figures in the leading partner in the governing coalition, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).
Anwar was Mahathir’s Deputy Prime Minister, finance minister and anointed successor when the Asian economic crisis struck in 1997.
Anwar was highly regarded in international financial and economic circles, and chaired major committees at both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. But when he sought to respond to the economic crisis with an austerity package, Mahathir objected loudly and angrily.
The relationship between Mahathir and Anwar became increasingly bitter. Matters came to a head in 1998 when supporters of Anwar scheduled a debate on “cronyism and nepotism” at an UMNO annual meeting. Anwar began giving speeches about corruption in UMNO and quickly established himself as an independent political force, becoming the figurehead of the “Reformasi” movement, which staged several mass rallies in the capital, Kuala Lumpur.
In September 1998 Anwar was arrested, and charged with corruption and sodomy. He was convicted and imprisoned after trials that were widely seen as fraudulent and flawed. But it was not until 2004, the year after Mahathir retired, that the Federal Court overturned Anwar’s convictions and freed him.
After a period away from politics, Anwar ran in the 2008 elections and led the Pakatan Rakyat to unprecedented success. The opposition won power in five of Malaysia’s 13 states and won 82 seats in parliament, ending the Barisen Nasional’s two-thirds control of parliament, which had allowed it to make constitutional changes at will.
In July, 2008, three months after the election, Anwar was arrested when about 40 police commandos stormed his home, and was charged with sodomizing the aide, Saiful, who was then 24.
From the start, the trial was a travesty and the presiding High Court Judge Mohamad Zabidin Mohamad Diah often appeared to be an arm of the prosecution.
It came out in court that Saiful had met with then Deputy Prime Minister Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, on June 24, 2008. This was two days before Saiful says he was sexually assaulted by Anwar, though no one in court asked what the meeting was about and Najib was not called to give evidence.
And Saiful had problems finding a doctor who agreed he had been sodomized. Two doctors said there was no evidence of such an act, though Saiful finally found one, three days after the alleged assault, who would testify to it.
Saiful also admitted to having two secret meetings with Assistant Police Commissioner Rodwan Mohd Yusof, who is notorious for having planted evidence presented in Anwar’s first sodomy trial in 1998. Rodwan took Anwar’s DNA samples that were in a police forensic laboratory and put them on a hotel mattress where Anwar was alleged to have had a homosexual liaison with his speechwriter, Munawar Anees.
It is not just human rights organizations and Malaysia’s opposition parties that have expressed outrage at the evident efforts to frame Anwar and destroy his reputation. Soon after Anwar’s acquittal in 2012 on the latest sodomy charges, the father of accuser Saiful, Azlan Mohd Lazim, apologised to Anwar at a press conference, saying his son had been used by officials in Prime Minister Najib’s office.
Azlan said “Anwar is innocent and a victim of this slander,” and went on to allege the evidence “was planned in great detail by a special officer in the PM’s department.”
Anwar is now 66. If he is prevented from running in the Selangor by-election, and thus maintaining a high political profile, he will be 70 by the time of the next national election. Even in Asia, where maturity is usually an asset in public service, age will count against him.
And Malaysian courts are notoriously biddable, so the chances are slim that Anwar’s appeal to the Federal Court will be successful.
So the prospects of Anwar ever becoming Malaysia’s Prime Minister do not look good, whatever the voters may say.
Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014