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Asean Affairs    6  January 2012

Malaysian Opposition Leader Anwar to Be Sentenced January 9

 By  Murray Hiebert and Blake Berger

January 6, 2011

The highly politicized trial of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges will conclude on January 9, when the judge is expected to deliver his verdict.

Accusations of character assassination and government interference have marred the nearly two-year trial, which has captured the attention of Malaysians and international observers alike.

Anwar, the former deputy prime minister and head of the People’s Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or PKR), faces the possibility of returning to jail for the second time on sodomy charges. Anwar’s first conviction came in 2000 after a falling out with then–prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. Malaysia’s Supreme Court overturned that conviction in 2004 and released him from prison. Since then, Anwar has helped lead a resurgent opposition coalition against the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and its Barisan National (BN) coalition.

The most recent accusation against Anwar arose in June 2008, two months after landmark national elections that saw the opposition coalition win more than one-third of the seats in Parliament and UMNO lose its supermajority for the first time since it came to power in 1957. The accusation comes from a former political aide to Anwar, Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan. In Malaysia, sodomy is against the law and carries a maximum sentence of 20 years. If convicted, Anwar would be prevented from running in elections for five years after his release from prison.

While the pending verdict looms over the political landscape, Anwar has mounted a tour of eight states across Malaysia to shore up support.

Q1: Who is Anwar Ibrahim?

A1: Anwar Ibrahim, who grew up in the northern Malaysian state of Penang, has been involved in Malaysian politics since the 1970s, rising from youth organizer to deputy prime minister. In 1971, he formed the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia, which advocated a moderate form of Islam and promoted social justice, and aligned himself with the opposition Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS).

In 1982, then–newly elected prime minister Mahathir recruited Anwar as a candidate for UMNO in the upcoming parliamentary elections. By 1987, Anwar had risen to president of the UMNO youth organization, and in 1993, he became deputy prime minister, working closely with the prime minister until 1998.

Tensions between Mahathir and Anwar reached a boiling point during the Asian financial crisis, and Mahathir ousted Anwar on September 2, 1998, leveling charges of corruption and sodomy against him. Following two highly politicized trials, Anwar was sentenced to six years on corruption charges and nine years for sodomy, with the sentences to be served consecutively.

While in prison, Anwar not only fought the charges against him but advocated for and helped lead the reformasi movement, which sought to promote greater civil liberties in Malaysia. The movement eventually brought the leading opposition parties into an informal alliance against the ruling coalition. In 2004, Malaysia’s federal court overturned his sodomy conviction because of flawed evidence, and Anwar was released from prison after having served almost six years.

Following his release, Anwar rejoined Malaysian politics by aligning himself with the PKR, which had been led by his wife while he was in prison. In the 2008 national elections, the opposition coalition won 82 out of the 222 seats in Parliament, ending UMNO’s two-thirds majority. Anwar’s party increased its share of seats from one to 31. The opposition coalition also took control of legislatures in 5 of Malaysia’s 13 states.

Q2: Why is Anwar’s sentencing significant?

A2: Anwar’s sentencing comes at a critical juncture in Malaysian politics. It will take place shortly before Prime Minister Najib Razak is expected to call parliamentary elections in which he hopes to regain UMNO’s supermajority. It also follows the large Bersih 2.0 (meaning clean) demonstrations on July 9, 2011, which called for free and fair elections and were supported by the opposition coalition. During those demonstrations, police arrested more than 1,600 protestors, all of whom were quickly released. Following the protests, Najib launched a series of reform initiatives that included a promise to abolish the colonial-era Internal Security Act.

In this context, a guilty verdict against Anwar could lend credence to claims that the trial was politically motivated and call into question Najib’s commitment to reform. Given the trial’s extensive media coverage and the magnifying glass it has placed on Malaysia, a guilty verdict will once again raise questions about the rule of law and human rights in Malaysia. Finally, a guilty verdict and a long sentence could turn Anwar into a victim, enhancing support for the opposition and creating a more volatile political atmosphere in the run-up to the elections.

Q3: What impact will the verdict have?

A3: Neither Anwar nor analysts familiar with Malaysia expect that a not guilty verdict will be handed down. Anwar has said he believes that a guilty verdict is a foregone conclusion. However, in the unlikely event that the judge finds him not guilty, it would take the wind out of the sails of claims of political interference in the trial and deflect criticism away from Najib’s administration.

A guilty verdict would have significant implications for Malaysia, both in the short and longer term. Tensions between opposition groups and the ruling coalition would likely come to a head. The youth wing of Anwar’s party has launched the 901 Free Anwar Campaign and is aiming to rally 100,000 supporters at the Kuala Lumpur high court on January 9 to show support for Anwar. The police, after initially saying they would take stern action against any gathering, said they would allow a rally to take place when the court delivers its verdict. The move was a surprising concession for a government that normally seeks to squash protests. Nonetheless, a showdown between the opposition groups and the police is still possible if the protestors march in areas the police consider off limits.

A guilty verdict could affect both the ruling coalition and opposition parties in the run-up to the elections. It would have the potential to bolster the opposition even while removing its most prominent leader. Whether substantiated or not, a guilty verdict would invariability lend credence to the opposition’s claims that the charges and trial were politically motivated and orchestrated. It is hard to see how sentencing Anwar to prison would benefit the ruling party. The imprisonment of Anwar from 1999 to 2004 did not prevent him from serving as the de facto leader of the reformasi movement, and after he was released, he helped lead the opposition to its largest gains ever in the 2008 elections. A guilty verdict might also affect the regime’s standing in the international community. The trial has attracted the attention of foreign governments and nongovernmental organizations alike and has the potential to hurt the reputation of the government on the international stage.

Q4: Could the verdict have a long-term impact on U.S.-Malaysia relations?

A4: In the short term, the Anwar verdict will raise questions in Washington regarding the rule of law and human rights in Malaysia. Such concerns were already expressed during the Bersih 2.0 protests and may have fed into President Barack Obama’s decision not to visit Malaysia during his recent trip through Asia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell have separately called for a fair and transparent trial. Senator John Kerry, former vice president Al Gore, and former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz have voiced similar concerns.

Washington in recent months has raised concerns about alleged human rights violations in Vietnam and Indonesia and should be expected to do so again if the leading Malaysian opposition leader is imprisoned. This should not, however, cause a serious strain in U.S.-Malaysia relations. Ties between the two countries have significantly strengthened in recent years, especially in the security and economic spheres. The United States currently conducts numerous joint military exercises, bilaterally and multilaterally, with Malaysia and cooperates significantly on counterterrorism and counternarcotics operations. Malaysia is a noncombat partner in Afghanistan, providing medical and humanitarian assistance on the ground. The United States and Malaysia are partners along with seven other countries in the negotiations to establish the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

Some Malaysian politicians may be irritated by criticisms from Washington. But in light of the warming trend in the increasingly multifaceted U.S.-Malaysia relationship, U.S. comments about Anwar’s imprisonment should not derail relations that have been carefully nurtured by leaders of the two countries in recent years.

Murray Hiebert is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Blake Berger is a researcher with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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