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Anwar verdict resets Malaysian politics

Asia Times - January 11, 2012

Simon Roughneen, Kuala Lumpur A not-guilty verdict in a sex scandal case against Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim could prove a game-changer in the run-up to elections due by 2013 but thought by many analysts to be held this year.

After months of railing against what he deemed trumped-up and politicized charges, Anwar cut an understandably cheerful and relieved dash on Monday morning when speaking to perhaps 3,000 supporters outside the Kuala Lumpur court where he was acquitted of charges of sodomizing a male party aide in 2008. Sodomy is a criminal offense punishable by 20 years in prison in Malaysia, where Muslim citizens are subject to sharia law.

The case, which has hung over the country's political scene for over three years, represented the second time Anwar faced such charges. He was acquitted due to a lack of evidence. Anwar thanked God for the not-guilty verdict, telling reporters, "We must focus on the next general elections and the reform agenda. We hope for an independent judiciary and free media."

Supporters, some of whom donned Anwar masks outside the court building, chanted "reformasi" and "long live Anwar".

The 64-year-old opposition leader was accompanied by his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, and daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar, both prominent politicians in their own right. The post-verdict celebrations were curbed by three small explosions that injured several protesters and damaged cars parked outside the court. Nobody took responsibility for the blasts.

The unexplained explosions underscored to some the growing polarization of Malaysian politics, pitting the ruling United Malays Nasional Organization (UMNO) against Anwar's opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition.

UMNO, the country's largest political party, which has ruled uninterrupted since post-colonial independence through its multi-ethnic Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, is struggling to portray itself as a force for change ahead of the upcoming polls. Some analysts believe the decision in Anwar's favor could have been orchestrated to avoid a backlash against UMNO at the ballot box.

Ambiga Sreenavasan, head of the opposition-linked Bersih 2.0 reform movement, told Asia Times Online after the verdict that "as a lawyer I am pleased to see the upholding of the law and to have a decision that makes sense. I have always believed this was a political prosecution and it is alarming to see the court being used to bring down political opponents."

The verdict was viewed as a surprise by none other than Malaysian politics eminence grise and former long-time prime minister Mahathir Mohamed, who said, "I'm surprised that he was not found guilty. This shows that there was no government conspiracy against him before."

Others believe the case may have been manufactured to distract the opposition from its earlier Anwar-led drive in 2008 to unseat UMNO through parliamentary defections, which for various reasons failed to materialize. Anwar's Pakatan Rakyat made historic inroads at the 2008 polls, winning five out of the country's 13 federal states. UMNO, which lost its decades-long two-thirds parliamentary majority at that poll, has since recaptured control of one of those states, Perak.

Renegade reformer

Anwar, a former student leader, began his political career as a Mahathir protege before an estrangement over governance and economic and financial policies in 1998 saw him take up the reins of de facto opposition leader. That was a role that Malaysia's opposition believes prompted corruption and sodomy charges, widely perceived as politicized, against Anwar at that time. He was sentenced in 1999 to a six-year jail term on corruption charges and in 2000 to nine years in prison for sodomy. A federal court in 2004 reversed the sodomy conviction.

Anwar spearheaded the late 1990s drive for reform, or reformasi, amid the backdrop of the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis and the end of the 32-year Suharto dictatorship in neighboring Indonesia. He has been consistently outspoken about the cronyism and nepotism that has come to define UMNO's decades-long rule. After his jail term, Anwar's wife Azizah fronted the opposition coalition's historic success at the 2008 election, which has blunted the UMNO-led government's previous ability to railroad legislation through a rubber-stamp legislature.

Whether or not Monday's verdict makes the prospect of a history-making Anwar-led, non-BN government more or less likely, is not yet clear. Anwar can now run for election as a charismatic, reform-minded alternative to incumbent Najib Razak. Najib greeted Monday's verdict as evidence that Malaysia's judiciary is independent and free from government influence contrary to Anwar's and various human-rights groups' views.

"The case against Anwar was politically motivated and plagued with irregularities," the New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement released after the verdict. "During the trial, the prosecution refused to turn over key evidence as required by the Malaysian criminal procedure code, including its witness list and witness statements, notes by the doctors who examined [the alleged sodomy victim] at Kuala Lumpur Hospital, pharmacists' worksheets and notes on DNA testing and analysis, and closed-circuit television recordings from the condominium guardhouse where the alleged sodomy took place."

The government's counter-statement landed in journalists' inboxes mere minutes after the verdict was read, with Information Minister Rais Yatim saying, "Malaysia has an independent judiciary and this verdict proves that the government does not hold sway over judges' decisions. The current wave of bold democratic reforms introduced by Prime Minister Najib Razak will help extend this transparency to all areas of Malaysian life."

Skeptics and Malaysia's conspiracy-prone electorate might say that the verdict points directly to government interference given that the decision has "deprived the opposition of an emotive issue that they could milk for sympathy and point towards institutional weakness in the system", according to Ibrahim Suffian, head of the Merdeka polling organization.

Yet Najib might feel he has Anwar and the opposition on the back-foot. After a clumsy and heavy-handed crackdown on the Bersih 2.0 protest last July, when around 20,000 people took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur seeking reform of what they described as a bent electoral system, Najib turned on his heels and pledged a series of reforms to some of Malaysia's more stringent laws including the Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without trial on the eve of Malaysia's independence day celebrations last September.

More broadly, some experts of Malaysian politics believe the verdict could ultimately improve the country's democratic prospects.

Bridget Welsh, a political science academic at Singapore's Management University, said the outcome "will make elections even more competitive as both sides will have to focus beyond personal attacks". Merdeka's Suffian adds that, with the trial now out of the way, the political discussion can move away from navel-gazing and towards substantive policy issues as both sides try to sway voters in advance of the election.

[Simon Roughneen is a foreign correspondent. His website is www.simonroughneen.com.]

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