Politics Permeate Malaysian Opposition Leader's Sodomy Trial

Critics say the charges are an easy way for the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak to do away with his longtime foe once and for all.

by Samuel Oakford
Nov 4 2014, 2:50am

Photo by Joshua Paul/AP

The future of Malaysian politics could hinge on a bottle of lube.

On Monday, the sodomy trial of Anwar Ibrahim, leader of Malaysia's delicately balanced opposition coalition, headed into its second week of appeals. Critics say the charges against Anwar are politically motivated and an easy way for the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak to do away with his longtime foe once and for all.

Anwar, 67, is charged with sodomizing a former aid named Saiful Buukhari Azlan, on June 26, 2008. Prosecutors rarely file sodomy charges, which are a relic of British colonial rule. At the time, Anwar called the allegation "a complete fabrication."

Three months earlier, in March 2008, Anwar's Pakatan Rakyat, or People's Alliance, party — comprised of an unlikely coalition of Islamists, mainstream Malay elements, and secular Chinese — made a strong showing in the parliamentary elections. His arrest enraged supporters.

In 2012, Kuala Lumpur's high court, citing tainted DNA evidence offered up by the prosecution, found Anwar not guilty.

In 2013, his coalition made even greater gains, winning 51 percent of the popular vote, but not enough seats to depose the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) that has controlled Malaysia for decades.

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Following Pakatan Rakyat's strong showing, the country's court of appeals in March overturned Anwar's earlier acquittal and handed down a five-year sentence. The timing raised eyebrows. Anwar's appeal of that decision is currently being heard in Kuala Lumpur.

Anwar's sentencing came as the government began a crackdown on members of the opposition.

'It's clear that the ruling coalition wants to remove Anwar from politics, one way or another.'

Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the UN's human rights division, told VICE News that her office had received reports since August of more than 20 people — including civil society members, journalists, and lawyers — being charged or investigated under the country's broad 1948 Sedition Act.

"We are concerned that the authorities in Malaysia are arbitrarily applying the Sedition Act to silence critical voices," Shamdasani said.

Human rights officials and Anwar himself believe he will be tried under the act should he be acquitted of sodomy.

This is the second time Anwar has faced sodomy charges. In 1998, after falling out with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Anwar was charged after the government alleged he had relations with a male speechwriter. The two trials are known in Malaysia as Sodomy I and Sodomy II.

After gaining notoriety as a student leader in the 1970s, Anwar later became a rising star in the UMNO, also known as Barisan Nasional, and was widely considered heir apparent to Mahathir. But in 1998, as the country reeled from a regional economic crisis, Anwar — who only a year earlier had been appointed acting prime minister while Mahathir went on vacation — began to criticize his former mentor.

He was soon booted from the government, then arrested for the first time. In 2000, Anwar was sentenced to six years in prison for sodomy. The conviction was overturned in 2004.

"The trial is a political act disguised as legal procedure," Andrea Giorgettia, head of the International Federation for Human Rights' Asia desk, told VICE News. "Signs of direct political interference and involvement, including of current Prime Minister Najib Razak, are everywhere."

"It's clear that the ruling coalition wants to remove Anwar from politics, one way or another," Giorgettia said.

Throughout the saga, prosecutors have relied on flimsy evidence. The exhibits have included a toothbrush and water bottle on the floor of a holding cell where Anwar was detained, mishandled underwear that may or may not have been worn by Saiful on June 26, and the testimony of the accuser, who defense attorneys say met with Prime Minister Najib and police before the purported sodomy took place.

Last week, the defense cited the fact that doctors who examined Saiful noted a lack of tissue tearing. The prosecution countered that the use of lubricant would have prevented such damage. Datuk Seri Gopal Sri Ram, a former judge and one of Anwar's 14 defense attorneys, asked how it was possible for Saiful to be "forcefully sodomized," if he had in fact bought K-Y jelly before the encounter.

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Addressing the original high court's dismissal of the semen on a pair of Saiful's underwear as evidence, prosecutor Tan Sri Mudh Shafee Abdullah told the court "DNA cannot change identity with degradation… That is why we can still identify MH17 victims even with degradation."

Immersed in the minutiae of sexual fluids, it's easy to forget the trial would have no standing in many countries. Though Anwar is accused of raping Saiful, he is only officially charged with having gay sex, or "carnal intercourse against the order of nature."

"Using criminal law to prosecute individuals for engaging in consensual same sex violates a host of human rights guaranteed by international law," Shamdasani said.

Observers say the use of a sodomy charge is no accident.

"What's important is not his sexuality, but how his sexuality has been used to make the broad suggestion that the reform movement is linked to deviancy," Pheng Cheah, Malaysian-born chair of University of California, Berkeley's Center for Southeast Asian Studies, told VICE News. "The association is between deviant sexuality and the disintegration of society."

But politics in Malaysia are far more complicated than they appear at first glance. Barisan Nasional, often depicted as a monolithic party of Malay domination, is a coalition that includes smaller Indian and Chinese parties.

"One could speculate that a guilty verdict is actually against the government's interests," Chea said. "In many ways, the current government is extremely sympathetic to overseas liberal business interests — it wants foreign investment and the liberalization of the trade agenda. A guilty verdict would be a public relations disaster."

Many in Malaysia believe such a verdict is already in the books. But jailing Anwar for the second time could embolden his party, says Cheah.

"It would be interesting to see if Anwar is imprisoned, whether he will be considered a martyr," Cheah said. "Not in the sense that he died, but that he was victimized and suffered."

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford