Malaysia’s highest court has upheld a sodomy conviction against opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, sentencing him to five years’ jail amid angry scenes that will inflame political tensions across the country.
Dr Anwar, 67, warned before the verdict was delivered that jailing him would backfire on Malaysia’s government. He lashed out at the judges after prosecutors argued his sentence be at least six years’ jail, saying they had “bowed to their political masters”.
“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,” he said.
When Dr Anwar refused to stop speaking, the judges left the court. “Allah is my witness. I will not be silent. I will never surrender,” he said.
Lead prosecutor Muhammad Shafee Abdullah argued the original sentence of five years’ jail was “manifestly inadequate”.
He said Dr Anwar had shown no remorse. “The higher the man, the higher the crime,” Mr Shafee said, referring to Dr Anwar’s government service.
The conviction disqualifies Dr Anwar from political office and contesting the next election, which must be held by 2018.
Repeated charges of sodomy brought against Dr Anwar over more than a decade have been seen as an attempt to end his threat to the government’s increasingly precarious 58-year reign.
The conviction will renew criticism of the Malaysian government’s frequent use of courts to cripple its political opponents. Within minutes of the verdict being announced, the government issued a statement claiming that Malaysia has an independent judiciary.
“In this case, exhaustive and comprehensive due process has been followed over many years,” a government spokesperson said. “We call on all parties involved to respect the legal process and the judgement.”
The country’s colonial-era law, which criminalises consensual sexual acts between people of the same sex, has been condemned by the United Nations and many Western countries, including Australia.
After Dr Anwar had been take to jail the Abbott government issued a statement expressing disappointment at the verdict.
“We are deeply concerned by the severity of the sentence and we have made our concerns known to the Malaysian Government,” a spokesperson said.
“As a friend of Malaysia, Australia encourages the Malaysian Government to consider the impact of recent decisions, including the Anwar verdict and the retention of the Sedition Act, on its international standing and its commitment to human rights.”
David Wells, a forensic expert from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine who gave evidence in Dr Anwar’s first trial, said the scientific evidence led by the prosecution was deeply flawed and was accepted as such by the presiding judge when he delivered a not guilty verdict, which was later overturned.
“It is difficult to see how this position has changed in the absence of fresh evidence,” Professor Wells said.
Hundreds of chanting opposition supporters rallied outside the Federal Court in Kuala Lumpur as Dr Anwar arrived with his wife Wan Azizah Ismail, family members and senior opposition figures to hear the verdict.
Ms Wan Azizah said her husband was innocent and the judges must answer to God and their conscience. Dr Anwar hugged members of his weeping family after the verdict was read to a hushed and packed court.
Human rights groups called the verdict a travesty of justice.
“Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government has persisted in its politically motivated prosecution of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim at the expense of democratic freedoms and the rights to non-discrimination and privacy for all Malaysians,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Allowing this travesty of justice to stand will further undermine respect for rights and democracy in Malaysia.”
A former deputy prime minister once seen as a rising star among Asia’s political leaders, Dr Anwar was accused of sodomising a male aide in 2008 but was acquitted by the High Court in 2012. However the Appeals Court overturned the acquittal in March last year and sentenced him to five years’ jail.
Dr Anwar was previously imprisoned for six years after being ousted as deputy prime minister in 1998 on earlier charges of sodomy and abuse of power. He was freed in 2004 after Malaysia’s top court quashed that conviction.
Dr Anwar has maintained all of the charges were trumped up to kill his political career after a falling-out with former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Tuesday’s verdict is seen as a turning point in Malaysia’s sharply divided political system, in which the coalition led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has held power in one form or another since 1955.
Only a pro-rural gerrymander saved the coalition from defeat at bitterly contested elections in 2013, after Dr Anwar’s opposition alliance won the popular vote.
As tensions have risen in the country ahead of the verdict, the government made a flurry of arrests and prosecutions using a draconian sedition law that Mr Najib had pledged to abolish in 2001.
The quashing of dissent comes at a time Mr Najib is locked in a long-simmering battle with Dr Mahathir and other conservatives in UMNO.
Dr Mahathir, 89, has criticised a state-owned strategic investment firm called 1Malaysia Development Berhad, headed by Mr Najib, that has been plagued by charges of mismanagement. The firm has missed three payments on a $US600 million loan but the government insists it remains solvent.
Dr Mahathir, an abrasive and outspoken figure who remains a powerful influence in UMNO, has also blamed Mr Najib for the party’s poor poll result in 2013 and for plans to scale back a program that provides special privileges for the country’s Malay majority.
Mr Najib has also been embarrassed by allegations swirling around the gruesome slaying of Mongolian socialite Altantuya Shaariibuu eight years ago that have re-emerged after two of his former bodyguards were sentenced to hang in January over the murder.
The case has raised allegations of covert payments over Malaysia’s $US2 billion purchase of French submarines when Mr Najib was defence minister. Mr Najib and the government deny any wrongdoing.
Australia has been drawn into the case after Sirul Azhar Umar, one of the bodyguards, was arrested in Queensland. He is being held in immigration detention at Sydney’s Villawood detention centre.
Dr Anwar has been the unifying figure in the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance), holding together three unlikely partners, the Islamic PAS (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party), the secular and socialist DAP (Democratic Action Party) and Dr Anwar’s PKR (People’s Justice Party).