The UN body that investigates claims of false or arbitrary imprisonment has concluded that Malaysian authorities denied opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim a fair trial in the lead-up to the court's decision in February to uphold his conviction for sodomy and imprison him for five years.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which is appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, said in a letter that the conviction was politically motivated and called for Anwar's immediate release. The opposition leader has repeatedly denied sexually assaulting a former young male aide, a crime he was arrested for seven years ago, and has long accused the government of executing a witch hunt against him in attempts to stamp out political competition.
Anwar's daughter said the UN's call for her father's release "sends a clear and unequivocal message to Prime Minister Najib Razak, and ensures that the sharp decline in human rights under his administration will not go unnoticed."
The daughter, Nurul Izzah, a lawmaker, said she hopes the government will meet the UN's calls, but the prime minister's office Monday again denied the imprisonment was politically motivated and said parties should respect "the legal process, the judgment of Malaysia's courts and the rights of the victim to seek justice," the Associated Press reported.
"It had nothing to do with the government," Razak's office said in a statement. "Malaysia has an independent judiciary, with many rulings going against senior government figures, and the government does not have the power or authority to overrule the decisions of the courts."
Throughout the proceedings that began in 2008, the prosecution has relied on the testimony of Anwar's aide, Saiful, as well as alleged semen samples that were matched to the opposition leader by a DNA test. The defense has argued the test was botched and the samples tainted, and a high court judge agreed, acquitting him of the charges in early 2012.
But more than two years later, just days before Anwar was set to contest a March 2014 election, an appeals court overturned the high court's ruling, essentially squashing any prospect of Anwar leading his party in what likely would have been a win against Najib's administration.
In February, the court ruled in all DNA evidence, saying it had not been tampered with or degraded before testing.
In Malaysia, sodomy is a crime punishable by flogging or imprisonment for up to 20 years.
Anwar was previously embroiled in another sexual misconduct case with a male speechwriter when he served as deputy prime minister. He was dismissed from office and sentenced to six years in prison in 1999 after he was convicted of corruption and "illegal" gay acts. He says police beat him while he was in custody.
Two months after the conviction, the government brought a separate sodomy charge against Anwar involving his family's former driver. After another trial, he was found guilty and sentenced to nine years, which the court ordered him to serve after his first sentence was completed. In 2004, while Anwar was serving his second stint in prison, an appeals court overturned the conviction.
Several rights groups and public figures have defended Anwar, including former US Vice President Al Gore, who called the Malaysian government's continued prosecution of the case "disturbing."
"The entire world understands with clarity that Anwar Ibrahim was at the verge of running for an office that would have given him serious leverage for advocating greatly needed reform, had he won the election, that his election by the people was likely, and that it was the likely judgment of the electorate that inspired this action by those presently holding power over the administration of "justice," Gore wrote in a statement last year.