Malaysia opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was acquitted of sodomy by the Kuala Lumpur High Court after a trial he said was politically motivated, paving the way for him to contest elections that may be held this year.
The victory caps a second judicial tussle for Anwar, who was former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s deputy until being fired when faced with similar allegations in 1998. Anwar was sentenced to nine years in jail for sodomy and a separate corruption charge at that time, before being released in 2004 after Malaysia’s highest court overturned the sex conviction.
“I am extremely pleased that I have finally been vindicated,” Anwar said in a Bloomberg Television interview. “It came as a surprise. Of course, a pleasant one. Based on previous evidence, the judiciary is clearly not independent.”
The U.S. welcomed the acquittal. “The ruling reflects favorably on the independence of Malaysia’s judiciary and presents an opportunity for all Malaysians to focus on the future,” State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
With the ruling behind him, the next challenge for Anwar is building support for the ideologically disparate opposition that he leads, before elections that must be held by June 2013. The opposition is seeking to improve on its 2008 showing, when it won five states and held the ruling National Front coalition, now headed by Prime Minister Najib Razak, to its narrowest victory in five decades.
Five people suffered “minor” injuries in three explosions today outside the courthouse, where supporters of the opposition leader chanted “Long Live Anwar,” according to a statement on the police’s Facebook page. Home-made devices containing timers, ball-bearings, batteries and wires were found after clearing the crowd, city police chief Mohmad Salleh said in a phone interview.
“There was no evidence to corroborate” the charges, Judge Mohamad Zabidin Mohd Diah said in the Kuala Lumpur High Court. The court couldn’t exclude the possibility that DNA samples had been compromised, he said.
Anwar’s family, including his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and their six children, wept and hugged in the court as the judgment was read. Party members inside the court cheered.
Sodomy is illegal in Muslim-majority Malaysia, even between two consenting men. The charge carries a sentence of as much as 20 years in prison.
The country’s benchmark stock index, the FTSE Bursa Malaysia KLCI Index, closed 0.5 percent higher, while the ringgit was down 0.3 percent at 3.1525 per dollar at 5 p.m. local time.
“It’s good for the country and good for the stock market,” said Scott Lim, who manages 350 million ringgit ($111 million) as chief executive officer at Kuala Lumpur-based MIDF Amanah Asset Management Bhd. “With this vindication that he is not guilty, I think it clears people’s doubts. At least there is no accusation of political intervention.”
The government said the verdict was proof of an independent judiciary and highlighted steps announced by Najib last year to boost freedoms repealing laws that allow detention without trial, while also easing rules restricting media freedom.
“Malaysia has an independent judiciary and this verdict proves that the government does not hold sway over judges’ decisions,” Malaysian Information, Communications and Culture Minister Rais Yatim said in a statement. “The current wave of bold democratic reforms introduced by Prime Minister Najib Razak will help extend this transparency to all areas of Malaysian life.”
Anwar’s trial began in February 2010, stemming from a police report filed by a former aide in 2008 detailing a sexual encounter in a Kuala Lumpur apartment.
“The case has unnecessarily taken up judicial time and public funds,” Malaysia Bar Council President Lim Chee Wee said in an e-mailed statement today. “The Malaysian Bar hopes that the attorney general would not pursue any appeal, and will instead focus valuable resources of the Attorney General’s Chambers on more serious crimes.”
Anwar, 64, didn’t run in the March 2008 national poll because an earlier corruption conviction barred him from holding office until April of that year.
“It’s good for the opposition in the sense that Anwar can stand as a candidate in the next general election,” said Ong Kian Ming, a political analyst at UCSI University in Kuala Lumpur. “But it’s also bad for the opposition in the sense that they will not be able to benefit from a sympathy vote.”
Anwar’s latest two-year trial has been criticized by outside observers as politically motivated. New York-based Human Rights Watch in a Dec. 22 report called on Malaysia to “revoke its colonial-era law criminalizing consensual sexual acts between people of the same sex” and to drop the case against Anwar.
“Anwar Ibrahim was acquitted on a charge that should have never been brought in the first place,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in an e-mailed statement released today by the organization. “Hopefully the verdict sends a message to the Malaysian government to put this matter to rest.”
Gore to Branson
Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and billionaire Richard Branson have criticized the use of the law against the opposition chief.
The People’s Alliance coalition led by Anwar includes his People’s Justice Party, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party and the Democratic Action Party. Some Pan-Malaysian members espouse the implementation of Islamic law, while the Democratic Action Party’s secretary-general is Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, Malaysia’s only ethnic-Chinese state leader.
Najib announced a budget in October that sparked speculation about an early vote. The plan gives cash to low-income families, raises civil servants’ pay and boosts spending on railways to spur growth at a time when global economic risks cloud the outlook for Malaysian exports. He said Dec. 3 that preparations had begun for an election.
Najib’s plan is “to sway the electorate with handouts, which we’ve begun to see in increases in public servant pay and handouts to retirees,” said Johannes Lund, a Singapore-based analyst at Control Risks. “We’re probably going to see more of that as election plans go ahead.”