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August 8, 2008

Malaysia’s Anwar out on bail after pleading not guilty

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was released on bail Thursday after pleading innocent to sodomy charges, ahead of a by-election tipped to return him to parliament this month, reported AFP.

“This is a slander, it is a malicious allegation and I am not guilty,” Anwar was quoted by Reuters as saying from the dock after being accused of sodomising 23-year-old aide Mohamad Saiful Bukhari Azlan on June 26.

Anwar, a former deputy premier who was jailed a decade ago on similar charges that were later overturned, has said the new allegations have been concocted by the government to prevent him from seizing power.

Despite fears he would not be given bail, Sessions Court judge Komathy Suppiah set Anwar free on a 20,000-ringgit (6,100-dollar) bond until the next hearing on September 10.

“A man is innocent until proven guilty. I don’t think there’s any likelihood that Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim will abscond,” she said, using his honorific title.

Sodomy, even between consenting adults, is illegal in this conservative and predominantly Muslim nation, and carries a penalty of 20 years imprisonment.
The charges indicated the alleged sex act was consensual. Mohamad Saiful has reportedly said it took place at an up-market Kuala Lumpur apartment.

Anwar welcomed the bail decision, which allows him to campaign for the August 26 by-election, and said the prosecution had been ill-prepared.

“You can see how haphazard this has been. I am pleased with the decision and will proceed with my campaign,” he said.

His wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who vacated her parliamentary seat in northern Penang state to make way for Anwar, condemned the charges as “politically motivated” and said her husband was innocent.

“It’s a big relief that bail has been given. Anwar’s health is not too good,” she told reporters.

Security was tight outside the packed courtroom, which was guarded by about 200 police -- mostly riot squad officers. About 400 pro-Anwar supporters massed peacefully outside.

In anticipation of protests, major roads leading into the capital Kuala Lumpur were locked down with roadblocks, causing major traffic jams.

The timing of the allegations, after Anwar announced he would oust the government with the help of defectors in the wake of elections that handed the opposition a third of parliamentary seats, has raised fears of a conspiracy.

“The Malaysian government appears to be manipulating the legal system to shore up support for its continued rule and undermine the opposition,” Human Rights Watch’s Asia director Brad Adams said in a statement.

“This case is really about preventing challenges to the government’s rule,” he said of the coalition, which has ruled since independence from Britain half a century ago.

Amnesty International also expressed grave concern over the charges and said they appeared to be an attempt to prevent the 60-year-old opposition leader from re-entering parliament.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi on Wednesday denied Anwar’s claims that the government had engineered the allegations.

“There’s no conspiracy,” he said, according to the New Straits Times daily. “How could I insist that he be charged? The police are not so stupid to simply charge if there is no evidence.”

Anwar’s allies in the opposition alliance urged the government to drop the prosecution, which they said would harm Malaysia’s standing abroad.

“It is totally against Malaysia’s interests and international reputation -- the country is in the dock, it is not just Anwar on trial,” said Lim Kit Siang of the Democratic Action Party.

However, he welcomed the bail decision.

“His being released on a personal bond I think shows that the case is not irredeemable. The people’s hope that there is some independence in the judiciary is not totally gone,” he said.

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