A Malaysian court sentenced opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to five years in jail after overturning his acquittal in 2012 on a sodomy charge, leaving him unable to contest a special state election later this month.
The Court of Appeal allowed a stay of the sentence until March 10 and set bail for Anwar at 10,000 ringgit ($3,070), his lawyer Karpal Singh told reporters yesterday outside the court in Putrajaya. Sodomy is illegal in Malaysia and carries a maximum sentence of as many as 20 years in prison.
Anwar, 66, told reporters outside the court he would appeal the verdict and his People’s Justice Party would seek a replacement candidate to stand for the vacant Selangor state seat, with the election to be held March 23.
“In the short term it means that there will be a vacuum in terms of leadership” in the People’s Justice Party and Anwar’s Pakatan Rakyat coalition, said James Chin, professor of political science at the Malaysian campus of Australia’s Monash University. “If you take Anwar out, this means that you open up a can of worms. With Anwar there, at least there’s more predictability in terms of domestic politics in Malaysia.”
The court ruling may escalate political tensions in Muslim-majority Malaysia at a time when the government is in a legal tussle with Catholics to prevent them using the word “Allah” to refer to God in non-Muslim texts.
The former deputy prime minister was cleared on Jan. 9, 2012 after Kuala Lumpur High Court Judge Mohamad Zabidin Mohd Diah ruled there was no evidence to corroborate claims made by a former aide of a sexual encounter in 2008. Court of Appeal Judge Balia Yusof Wahi said yesterday the trial judge had erred in doubting the integrity of DNA samples the prosecution presented.
“Malaysia has an independent judiciary and the judges will have reached their verdict only after considering all the evidence in a balanced and objective manner,” the government said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. “Anwar Ibrahim and his legal team have the right to appeal” the decision to the Federal Court, it said.
The People’s Justice Party announced in January that Anwar, who holds a seat in the national parliament, would stand for the vacant state seat in Selangor, which in 2012 was the biggest contributor to the country’s gross domestic product.
The decision to have Anwar contest reflected the party’s efforts to speed reform in the state and fend off political attacks by the United Malays National Organisation, the country’s biggest party, Rafizi Ramli, strategic director of the People’s Justice Party, said in a statement released Jan. 29.
The 2012 acquittal allowed Anwar to lead the opposition in general elections that were held in May 2013. Prime Minister Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional coalition won a parliamentary majority, even though it secured just 47 percent of the popular vote. Anwar’s own party and another made up mainly of ethnic Malays did worse than the previous election in 2008 while his ally, the mostly ethnic-Chinese Democratic Action Party, improved its fortunes.
“This trial was all about knocking Anwar Ibrahim out of politics,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch. “Anwar and his family appear caught in a never-ending nightmare of his political adversaries’ making.”
Anwar was former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s deputy in the late 1990s during the Asian financial crisis. As finance minister he gave speeches citing Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction. In the case of Southeast Asia, that meant countries would emerge stronger from the financial downturn, Anwar said.
Mahathir disagreed. In 1998, he fired Anwar, pegged the currency and imposed capital controls. Within a month, Anwar was arrested. He spent the next six years in prison on convictions for abuse of power and sodomy, and was released in 2004 after Mahathir retired and a judge overturned the guilty verdict for having sex with a man.