Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

POLITICS-MALAYSIA: Anwar Ibrahim Set to Go On Trial

Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, Jul 12 2009 (IPS) - Anwar Ibrahim, the country’s charismatic former deputy prime minister, is set to go on trial this month for allegedly sodomising a male aide. It’s a charge his supporters dismiss as a political conspiracy against him.

The charges come as the 62-year-old leader heads the powerful Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition, which won one-third of parliament’s 222 seats in the 2008 polls.

Political analysts say the Pakatan coalition has a fair chance to advance its gains and capture federal power in the next polls due in 2011.

But, if found guilty in a trial that can go either way, Anwar could find himself back in jail, leaving his resurgent coalition leaderless, derailing its ambitions to seize power. If that happens, the coalition faces the challenge of finding a new leader who matches the towering stature of Anwar and can lead the opposition in parliament.

Anwar was first charged with committing sodomy in 1998 by the then premier, Mahathir Mohamad, amid a leadership dispute at the peak of the Asian economic crisis. Even then, Anwar maintained that he was a victim of a political conspiracy to stop him from toppling DrMahathir.

After spending six years behind bars, he was acquitted by the Federal court in 2004.

After years of political wilderness he made a sterling comeback, only to be charged again with sodomy, a trial which is being dubbed by the Malaysian media as "Sodomy 2".

This time Anwar is charged with sodomising his former aide Saiful Bukhari Azlan, 24, at a luxury apartment on June 26 last year.

The new sodomy charge, a crime punishable with 20 years in prison and whipping, stands in the way of his dream to be the prime minister and implement his reforms agenda. His supporters accuse the incumbent prime minister Najib Razak of conspiring against him.

They question the motive behind the charge given the authorities levied the charge even after two medical reports, one from a government hospital, allegedly stated that there were no signs of forced penetration. In addition, Anwar supplied an alibi for the time in question. The charge was converted from rape to consensual sodomy, still illegal under Malaysian law. The aide has also turned crown witness. Anwar pleaded not guilty to the charge in August 2008 and after numerous pre-trial hearings, the trial is all set to start this month. The prosecution is expected to produce 23 witnesses, CCTV recordings and DNA test results as evidence. Along with local human rights lawyers, the United States and Amnesty International have voiced concerns over whether Anwar would get a fair trial. "I have grave concerns about the trial because he did not get a fair trial when charged with sodomy in [1998]," Ambiga Sreenivasan, former president of the Bar Council told IPS. "He was politically persecuted then and this time too the politics is clearly behind the charge." "He would not have been charged today with consensual sex if he was not Anwar Ibrahim," she added. "We fear the nation cannot take another bout of divisive trial similar to the 1999 case that was heavily criticised by the international community." The first sodomy trial had sparked widespread demonstrations against the Mahathir Mohamad-led government. To quell the protests, the latter ordered the arrest of dozens of political opponents. As a result the government saw its vote bank massively erode in the 1999 general elections, even though it managed to scrape back to power. "This time we expect a bigger backlash if the trial proceeds and Anwar is found guilty and jailed," James Chin, a political science professor with the Monash University in Malaysia, told IPS. "The majority of the people see the trial as another case of political persecution," he said. "The fallout would be minimal because Anwar is seen as the victim. Besides the opposition is also very strong now compared to before and can better handle any damage." In a statement to the local media last month, Anwar did not rule out the possibility of widespread protests. "People get upset and react when they see blatant persecution," he said.

The government rejects criticism of persecution, arguing that the judiciary is free and unbiased. "We will monitor the trial closely and see what evidence is presented as well as the behaviour of all the parties involved," averred Ragunath Kesavan, the chairman of the Malaysian Bar Council. Given the verdict can swing either way, Mr Anwar is ensuring his coalition is not left leaderless in case he is pronounced guilty.

His wife, Dr Wan Azizah Ismail, who led his Keadilan party during the first trial and imprisonment a decade ago, has taken charge as the spokeswoman for the Pakatan coalition. Last month, he also persuaded Zaid Ibrahim, a former government minister who had earlier resigned over the use of the security laws against political opponents, to join the coalition and hold it together.

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