Malaysia’s top court on Tuesday upheld opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s sodomy conviction and sentenced him to five years in prison, a verdict he slammed – while standing in the dock – as the “murder of judicial independence” and the result of a political conspiracy.
The case has widely been seen at home and abroad as politically motivated to eliminate any threats to the ruling coalition whose popularity has slowly been eroding since 2008 after more than five decades of unquestioned dominance.
Anwar is the most popular, vocal and visible symbol of the opposition’s resurgence that has become a potent threat to Prime Minister Najib Razak.
This was Anwar’s final appeal, which means he will go to prison immediately.
Sodomy, even consensual, is a crime in Muslim-majority Malaysia and is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
‘Respect judicial process’
In an apparently pre-written statement released minutes after the verdict, Najib’s office urged the people to respect the judicial process, calling it independent.
Addressing the five-panel judges of the federal court, Anwar said: “You have become partners in crime in the murder of judicial independence,” prompting the judges to get up and walk out of the room, with one of them saying “I don’t need to hear all this”.
Anwar, however, continued speaking from the dock. “Allah be my witness. I pledge that I will not be silenced. I will fight on for freedom and justice. I will never surrender.”
His speech came during what’s known as the “mitigation proceedings” after the verdict was read out and both sides were given an opportunity to speak before the judges decided the prison term.
“I maintain my innocence. This to me is a fabrication coming from a political conspiracy to stop my political career,” Anwar said.
Earlier, Justice Arifin Zakat, who read out the verdict, said there was “overwhelming evidence” that Anwar sodomised an aide. “We are thus convinced beyond reasonable doubt that the [aide] has been sodomised by the appellant as charged.”
As the last words of the verdict were read out, Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah, burst into tears. The 67-year-old politician hugged and consoled her before turning to his children and grandchildren. He smiled and hugged them too.
“I am all right,” he told one of his supporters in the court room. Hundreds more were gathered outside the imposing court building in Putrajaya, the administrative capital of Malaysia. Outwardly, Anwar appeared calm and even joked with reporters in the court. In between consoling his family, he waved at reporters and said: “See you in some years.”
The ‘death of justice’
Judge Arifin said the defence allegations that the case was a political conspiracy “remains an allegation, unsubstantiated by any facts whatsoever.” He also rejected the defence argument that the semen samples taken from the aide, Saiful Azlan Bukhari’s body, were tampered with by the police.
A few hundred supporters gathered peacefully outside the court, watched by about 300 police. The supporters are “definitely disappointed,” said Edmund Teoh (29), calling the court partial and unjust.
The verdict is the “death of justice. We will keep on fighting for a better Malaysia. We won’t give up,” said another supporter, Tey Khang Fai (33).
Anwar was accused of sodomising Saiful in 2008 when he was working in the opposition election campaign office, 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 in jail. Anwar went to the Federal Court to appeal that verdict, where he lost. The court also maintained the sentence, even though the prosecutor had asked for more than six years.
“It is beyond reasonable doubt that [Saiful] was sodomised by the appellant. The appeal is dismissed,” Justice Arifin said as he wrapped up reading the verdict, which took two hours.
The government statement released by the prime minister’s office said that Anwar’s case had gone through an exhaustive legal process, and that the case was brought by an individual, not the government.
“The process is now complete and we call on all parties to respect the legal process and judgment … Malaysia has an independent judiciary, and there have been many rulings against senior government figures,” it said.
Anwar was previously imprisoned for six years after being ousted as deputy prime minister in 1998 on earlier charges of sodomising his former family driver and abusing his power. He was freed in 2004 after Malaysia’s top court quashed that sodomy conviction. That case was also widely seen as politically motivated, as it came at a time when he was locked in a power struggle with then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Anwar said his jailing for a second time would be toughest on his family, but that they were all very supportive.
Instead of breaking up his three-party alliance, he warned Najib that jailing him could backfire and galvanise more support for the opposition.
“They will continue with or without Anwar. No one is indispensable,” Anwar said. “Authoritarian leaders always believe the best way to deal with dissidents is to jail them, but throughout history, it has always backfired,” he said. “If Najib chooses to take this line – I hope not – then he is inviting problems for this country.”
Anwar led his alliance to unprecedented gains in the 2008 elections and made further inroads in the 2013 polls. Najib’s National Front coalition won with a slimmer majority and lost the popular vote to the opposition. – AFP