The Sodomy Trial of Anwar Ibrahim

The trial of Anwar Ibrahim threatens to tear apart Malaysia's much-needed opposition movement.

 After several delays, the sodomy trial of Malaysian opposition leader and former­–Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has started up again.

This is not the first time that Anwar has been accused of such dirty deeds. In 1998, after falling out with then–Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad over differences in approaches to dealing with the Asian financial crisis, Anwar was subsequently convicted on two charges—corruption and sodomy—and sentenced to a total of fifteen years. That sodomy conviction was later reversed in September 2004 and Anwar was released after serving six years in prison. He returned to politics, uniting two major but ideologically opposed political parties, and led an opposition coalition to within a hair’s breadth of power in the March 2008 general election.

Once again Anwar was arrested on sodomy charges, this time the alleged victim his aide, Mohd Saiful Bukhari, on July 16, 2008. Sodomy, even if consensual, is deemed a crime in Malaysia, and is punishable by whipping and a maximum of twenty years imprisonment. Beyond that, clearly a conviction would also effectively put an end to Anwar’s political career and his aspirations to Malaysia’s top office.

For its part, Anwar’s defense team has maintained that the charges bear the imprint of a government conspiracy, politically motivated by an incumbent regime bent on stymieing an opposition movement which managed to deny the ruling coalition a two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time in Malaysian history. To substantiate their claims, Anwar’s defense team has decried the fact that they have repeatedly been denied access to key evidence during the trial. Anwar himself has maintained his innocence, claiming that medical reports produced by defense witnesses have disproved his involvement. Needless to say, the government has denied that there is a conspiracy against Anwar.

The “Sodomy II Trial,” as it has become known both within Malaysia and abroad on broadsheets and in cyberspace, is more than just about producing the obvious and inevitable media furor—the outcome of the trial—whatever the court’s decision—will have major long-term implications. The court’s decision will be closely watched for signs of judicial independence and integrity (or lack thereof). This has been a long-running question, starting in the 1980s, when Mahathir Mohamad accused the judiciary of “political interference” after a series of court decisions that went against his government, to the nationwide reservations piqued during Anwar’s first sodomy trial, up until the present. For matters have since taken a turn for the worse, with new allegations of corruption and revelations of political involvement in senior judicial appointments.

Beyond its impact on the reputation of the legal system, the outcome of Anwar’s trial will also reverberate across the Malaysian political landscape. There is no gainsaying the fact that Anwar has been a talismatic figure for the Malaysian opposition. His 1999 conviction and famous “black eye,” courtesy of the former–inspector general of police, catalyzed a reform movement that saw the Malaysian opposition make significant inroads at the general elections that same year. In 2008, Anwar was instrumental in cobbling together an opposition alliance that included the Chinese-dominated, socialist Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS). Even his detractors would admit that Anwar is still the only figure capable of bridging the ideological gulf that exists between these two groups. This being the case, if Anwar is imprisoned the brittle DAP-PAS alliance could well unravel. The picture for the opposition is already gloomy. With Anwar presently distracted by his own trial, the People’s Justice Party (PKR)—the party led by Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah and which has been the vehicle for his return to Malaysian politics after his 2004 release—has fallen into disarray as factions jostle and compete over leadership positions.

In private, pragmatists in the opposition coalition have expressed that they understand Anwar’s conviction to be a matter of “when” and not “if.” Concomitantly, they have begun to strategize for a “post-Anwar” era, in the hope that a formula can be arrived at to keep the opposition coalition intact when Anwar is removed from the political scene. But differences between the opposition parties run deep, and thus far no one apart from Anwar has been able to bridge them. All said, another conviction would not only put an end to Anwar’s ambitions of becoming Malaysia’s next prime minister, it will also remove the crucial linchpin that has hitherto checked centrifugal tendencies and kept the opposition coalition together.

 

(Photo by Didiz)