Malaysian prosecutors are expected to ask the country’s highest court this Friday to increase the prison sentence meted out to opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who was judged guilty by an appellate court last month on sodomy charges.
The case is being taken to the Federal Court just two days before the arrival of US President Barack Obama on a state visit, an action seen as an insult to Washington.
Anwar currently faces five years in prison on the charge, which is rarely prosecuted in Malaysia and is widely seen as a crude attempt by the government to end his political career. The court is expected to act within two to six months after the referral.
Obama has no plans to see Anwar in Kuala Lumpur, officials said in Washington, although the opposition leader might meet with someone else in the presidential delegation. The case has been condemned by political leaders from the United States, Australia and other governments. Anwar has long had many friends in Washington and he and his allies have assiduously courted US support in his long struggle against legal harassment.
Amnesty International and other rights groups have also condemned the charges against the country’s most prominent opposition figure. Most political observers in Kuala Lumpur fully expect the federal court to uphold the guilty verdict. Anwar himself is said to be bracing himself for a trip behind bars, his second after a widely-criticized guilty verdict for the same offense in 1999, which was eventually overturned.
Shortly before he died last week, Anwar’s lawyer, Karpal Singh, who was also an opposition leader, told reporters he had received new documents indicating prosecutors will seek the longer prison term.
"As Anwar is too old for whipping, they must feel five years is too light," Karpal told AFP.
The decision to act now against Anwar was met with puzzlement in Kuala Lumpur, with political analysts saying Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak values his relationship with Obama and looks forward to the reflected glow of the state visit to boost his own flagging popularity ratings.
The action seems certain to further hurt Malaysia’s image, which in recent weeks has been hammered by its fumbling response to the March 8 loss of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, with 239 people aboard. The government has also been hit by reports of growing racial and religious intolerance.
Anwar was acquitted of the sodomy charge by the High Court in January 2012. Although appeals in Malaysia’s clogged court system often take years, the appellate court allegedly accelerated the government’s appeal against the acquittal. The theory is that doing so was a way to deny Anwar a chance to run for a seat in the state assembly of Selangor that would have allowed him to become the chief minister of the state, the country’s largest and most prosperous.
If Anwar is jailed, it would be a major blow to the leadership of the three-party opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition. When Karpal, the chairman of the Democratic Action Party, was killed last week in a car accident he was appealing a guilty verdict for sedition, which would have cost him his seat in parliament. Karpal’s funeral over the weekend ignited a huge groundswell of emotion, with an estimated 10,000 people attending his last rites in Penang.
Karpal’s death was met with ugly comments by some United Malays National Organization figures. One MP posted a picture online of Karpal’s blood-smeared face as he lay in the wreckage of his vehicle along with a newspaper clipping in which Karpal was quoted as saying “The creation of an Islamic state will only be over my dead body.” Others posted tweets and Facebook comments saying Allah was responsible for Karpal’s death.
Other opposition leaders have also been put in the dock. Tian Chua, Anwar’s colleague and vice president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), has been charged along with three others for allegedly making seditious speeches following the May 5 general election, supposedly calling for replacement of the elected government. They are student activist Muhammmad Safwan Anang Talib, Parti Islam se-Malaysia member Mohd Tamrin Abdul Ghafar, and opposition activist Haris Ibrahim.
In addition, Mohd Rafizi Ramli, one of Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s brightest stars, faces charges under the Banking and Financial Institutions Act for revealing the details of one of the country’s biggest scandals involving the National Feedlot Corporation and the misuse of a portion of a RM250 million soft loan to the family of UMNO women’s wing leader Shahrizat Abdul Jalil.
Ambiga Sreenavasan, the former head of the Malaysian Bar Association, likened the charges against the top opposition leaders as an “Operation Lalang in the courts,” a reference to the 1987 crackdown by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad via the notorious Internal Security Act which put 106 individuals, most of them opposition figures, behind bars on indeterminate sentences,
Given the obedience of Malaysia’s court system to the ruling Barisan Nasional and particularly UMNO, guilty verdicts are expected in all of the cases.
The three-party opposition coalition has been troubled almost since the time Anwar cobbled it together prior to the 2008 general election. It is made up of the predominantly Chinese Democratic Action Party, Anwar’s moderate and urban Parti Keadilan Rakyat and the predominantly rural Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS, all with differing goals and philosophies.
In recent days, those competing philosophies have come to the fore with attempts by the PAS state government in Kelantan to impose strict hudud penalties under Shariah Law for theft, fornication, adultery, consumption of liquor and apostasy. Both the DAP and the moderate urban Malays in PKR want nothing to do with hudud law. It is also opposed by the Malaysian Chinese Association, the ethnic Chinese component of the Barisan Nasional.
Anwar has been able to juggle these competing interests to keep the coalition together, ending up with a 50.87 percent general election win over the Barisan in May of 2013. The result, despite the Barisan’s control of the electoral machinery, the mainstream press and television, shocked government leaders. The BN held on to parliament handily due to gerrymandered constituencies but the election badly weakened the ruling coalition, which lost virtually all of its support from ethnic Chinese and Indians.
With Anwar and the others facing jail, and Karpal Singh gone, it is unclear if there will be a strong enough leadership in the opposition coalition to maintain its already shaky cohesion. But regardless, the legal assault on the opposition is making the government few friends internationally and building no bridges at home.
A prominent Indian lawyer suggested to Asia Sentinel that the DAP could run Karpal Singh’s cat in the by-election to fill his seat in parliament. Given the current outburst of sentiment over Karpal’s death, the cat would be certain to win, the man said, and demonstrate the depth of feeling against the Barisan. Asia Sentinel
By John Berthelsen