Anwar’s Sodomy Charge Complicates Political Struggle

The struggle between Malaysia’s leading opposition politician and the ruling forces he is trying to unseat intensified Thursday when Anwar Ibrahim was formally charged in Kuala Lumpur with "carnal intercourse against the order of nature," a crime punishable by 20 years in jail.

The charge, widely expected for weeks despite mounting accusations that it was trumped up to derail Anwar’s political aspirations, complicates plans by the de facto leader of the three-party Pakatan Rakyat coalition, to run in an August 26 by-election for a Penang seat now held by his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.

Police blocked roads leading to the Duta Courts Complex where Anwar was charged at about 6 am, causing massive traffic jams. About 200 people, including opposition leaders, showed their support for Anwar in the morning, some shouting “reformasi” outside the court.

Anwar has forecast that by September 16 he would induce enough members of the ruling national coalition to cross the line to join the opposition and take over the government, ending the 50-year-reign of the three ethnic political parties that have run the country since independence

Although the charge is a non-bailable offence, the court used its discretionary power to grant bail of RM20,000 asked by the prosecution and confiscated Anwar's passport. The court has set September 10 for his next appearance, pending transfer to the High Court, if necessary.

"This is a malicious slander. I’m not guilty," Anwar told the court in response to the charge.

The long political squabble, which began with national elections on March 8 that cost the ruling coalition its two-thirds majority in parliament, is also starting to affect the country's economy. Credit Suisse, in a report Thursday, advised selling stocks in blue-chip companies like IOI Corp, a plantation giant; Public Bank, one of the country's most profitable banks; Digi.Com, a telecommunications company and the usually resilient British American Tobacco (Malaysia).

Stephen Hagger, the analyst who wrote the report, cited heightening political risks in coming weeks which can be expected to have a negative effect on profitability.

In a press conference Wednesday, Anwar accused Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi of responsibility for the sodomy charges, which have been dubbed Sodomy II for their similarity to the charges brought against Anwar in 1998 after he was ousted as deputy prime minister and finance minister. He was convicted in 1999 on the charge and driven from politics. The sodomy charges were eventually overturned after Anwar spent six years in prison.

Badawi, however, has denied any part in the prosecution.

"How can I insist that he be charged if there's no evidence? The police are not stupid," Badawi told reporters Wednesday.

A 23-year-old former aide to Anwar, Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan, reported to the police on June 28 that the 61-year-old politician had forcibly sodomized him in an apartment in Kuala Lumpur.

The charge was further questioned after Osman Abdul Hamid, a physician from Hospital Pusrawi who examined Saiful prior to the accusation, made a statutory declaration dated July 30, insisting that there was no sign of forcible sodomy. “The anus was normal, no bleeding, there were no signs of piles and no abscess, no pus, no injury, no tear and no discharge," the doctor wrote. In the declaration, Osman added that the "anus was dry and clean and looked normal. No abnormalities seen."

He then advised Saiful to see a doctor at a government hospital because "according to his (Saiful's) complaint, it was a criminal case." The statutory declaration was published in the influential opposition-oriented website Malaysia Today.

Earlier, the hospital claimed that Osman's hospital report, which was leaked to the media earlier, was based on Saiful's complaint of an upset stomach and that Osman had not checked Saiful for evidence of sodomy.

The Osman declaration was the latest in a series of reports calling into question the validity of the sexual abuse charges. Earlier, Malaysia Today charged that Saiful had met in room 619 of Kuala Lumpur's Concorde Hotel on June 25 with a senior assistant commissioner of police named Mohd Rodwan Mohd Yusof and had spoken on the telephone at least eight times with Rodwan prior to filing the charge against Anwar. Rodman, the Web site’s editor Raja Petra Kamarudin charged, was also involved in the 1998 case against Anwar.

Raja Petra has also charged that Saiful met at least twice with Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, Anwar's rival for political primacy in Malaysia, prior to the filing of the charges, despite an original statement by Najib that he had never met the youth. (Raja Petra has also been sued for libel for earlier accusations made against Najib in connection with an ongoing murder case.)

Political observers say the new charges are likely to further erode public confidence in the Barisan Nasional, the coalition led by three ethnic parties which has ruled the country since independence in 1957. An August 1 survey by the Merdeka Centre, reported that 55 percent of 1,030 Malaysians surveyed do not believe the sodomy allegations. Additionally, 54 percent said they were not happy with Prime Minister Badawi's performance, his worst approval rating since he came into power in 2003.

At the same time, political analysts say, the charges may threaten Anwar's ambition to return to parliament,

"It's going to complicate his aim to take over the government,'' Mary Magdaline Pereira, associate professor of policy studies at the Universiti Teknologi Mara in Selangor, Malaysia told Bloomberg. "If there's the slightest indication he's guilty, that will affect the conservative Muslim voter.''