Malaysia’s Anwar ‘Guilty’ Says Top Court

In a decision that could put domestic politics in turmoil and Malaysia’s already dubious reputation for the rule of law in tatters, the country’s highest court on Tuesday found opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim guilty of sodomy with a former aide.

Thousands of supporters gathered outside the ornate Islamic federal courtroom to await a verdict that was widely suspected in a case that has long been seen as a thinly veiled attempt to remove Anwar, 68, from the public scene.

Many wept when the verdict was read while others shouted “Reformasi!” the rallying cry of Malaysia’s long-frustrated political opposition. Riot police were in place as anger rose in the early afternoon.

The court upheld a previous five-year prison sentence, effectively ending Anwar’s political career unless – which seems unlikely– he is pardoned. The case is reminiscent of the 1999 conviction handed down to Anwar on sodomy charges. That verdict was reversed finally in 2004 and Anwar was released from prison.

‘Murder of the judiciary’

The verdict spurred Anwar to tell the judges, "You could have carved your names. But in bowing to the dictates of your political masters, you have become partners in the murder of the judiciary. You chose to remain on the dark side."

As Anwar refused to be silent, the judges left the courtroom.

The case ostensibly hinged on complaining witness Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan, a onetime aide to Anwar, who first brought the complaint in 2008.

“We find ample corroborative evidence to support Saiful's testimony." said Chief Justice Tun Arifin Zakaria in his judgment. "We have no reason to disturb this finding."

The entire court case, which resulted from Saiful’s accusation that he had been raped by Anwar but which was later changed to a ruling of consensual sex, has been condemned by international human rights organizations and countries including Australia, Canada and others for its blatant political overtones. Homosexuality is illegal in Malaysia. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International issued statements accusing the government of using the case to silence a prominent government critic.

The decision, critics say, was stage-managed from the time it was filed and was designed by the powerful United Malays National Organization to wreck an opposition movement that has been growing progressively stronger in recent years while a ruling elite in power since independence has seemingly lost the confidence of the electorate.

A fiery political orator who broke with UMNO nearly 20 years ago and who has been hounded by suspect court cases ever since, Anwar led his disparate three-party coalition to a numerical victory with more than 51 percent of the popular vote in the 2013 general election, although gerrymandering meant the opposition didn’t take power in parliament.

The verdict also comes at a time when Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak is under internal party pressure. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is attempting to bring down his government and Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin is openly gunning for his job. The government may believe that the removal of Anwar from the opposition leadership will give the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition a certain amount of breathing space.

Emerging stronger?

Anwar to some extent has been looked upon as both an asset and a drawback to the opposition coalition although no single individual can match his drawing power. His charisma on the stump has drawn voters to his Pakatan Rakyat coalition, and his ability to weld together the Chinese nationalist Democratic Action Party with the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS, and his own urban Malay Parti Keadilan Rakyat has taken a certain amount of organizational genius.

But at the same time, foot soldiers within the three parties have despaired of Anwar’s inattention to detail and have suggested privately that with him in prison as a martyr, they could build a more effective coalition to seek to sweep the Barisan out of power when elections must be held in 2018. UMNO leaders have been struggling to rebuild a divided party, riddled with corruption and struggling to keep together a 50-year-old promise of ethnic Malay supremacy in a changing world.

The opposition coalition itself, however, has faced a series of crises as the fundamentalist PAS has sought to assert its primacy, wrecking Anwar’s appointment of a chief minister for the vote-rich state of Selangor and seeking to institute Islamic hudud law dating from the 7th Century and calling for the stoning of adulterers and amputation of limbs for thieves, in Kelantan, the rural east coast state that it controls.

How does this look?

Government leaders including Najib also appear to be tone-deaf to the international spectacle of Anwar’s prosecution. The original High Court trial was characterized by a long series of procedural flaws and prejudicial misjudgments from its start. And after the court ruled that DNA evidence was irrevocably tainted, an appellate court reversed that ruling on the prosecution's request, sending the case to the Federal Court.

Saiful even acknowledged in court that he had met with Najib, then the defense minister, his wife Rosmah Mansor and others before the charges were ever filed. He also acknowledged that he had gone to Anwar’s condominium with a tube of lubricant in his pocket in an apparent attempt to meet the opposition leader for homosexual sex.

Two hospitals refused to confirm that Saiful had taken part in sex and it was 50 hours before another hospital agreed that his anus had been penetrated.

In Tuesday’s ruling, the court ignored those facts and said the controversial DNA sample, which had not been guarded before it was delivered to authorities, was likely not corrupted, at which point Anwar looked at his family, apparently knowing the fix was in. His children broke into tears, sensing the verdict that was to come.

The charge of sodomy with a consenting partner itself was an anomaly. Only seven such cases have been brought in recent history, according to a women’s legal defense group.

Anwar will lose his Permatang Pauh parliamentary seat if he does not receive a pardon and it is unlikely his political career could ever recover. Opposition politicians were meeting after the verdict to discuss choosing a new leader.