Anwar Ibrahim freed in dramatic court ruling

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Malaysia's highest court today overturned the conviction of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim and freed him from prison — exactly six years after his removal from office triggered the country's worst political crisis.

Malaysia's highest court today overturned the conviction of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim and freed him from prison — exactly six years after his removal from office triggered the country's worst political crisis.

A Federal Court panel ruled 2-1 to reverse Anwar's sodomy conviction. He was expected to travel to Germany for surgery to treat a back injury stemming from a 1998 police beating.

Anwar was once considered the heir apparent of his mentor-turned-nemesis, then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. But Mahathir fired him, touching off widespread political turmoil.

Prime Minister Ahmad Abdullah Badawi, who succeeded Anwar as Mahathir's hand-picked heir, had been expected to take a softer line toward Anwar and put the divisive issue behind Malaysia after he took office last year.

In his first remarks to reporters, Anwar claimed that the convictions against him had been "highly politically motivated" but that he bore no ill will toward Mahathir, who retired 10 months ago.

"I bear no malice against him. Let him retire," Anwar said. "I feel vindicated. This is all about justice."

Judge Abdul Hamid Mohamad read out the verdict over 1 1/2 hours. As it became apparent that Anwar, 57, would be freed, the prisoner — wearing a neck brace and confined to a wheelchair — exchanged excited glances with family members and gave a thumbs-up sign.

"We are not prepared to uphold the conviction," Abdul Hamid said. "We therefore allow this appeal and set aside the conviction and the sentence."

Abdul Hamid said the conviction was flawed because the chief prosecution witness, Azizan Abubakar, had repeatedly changed the dates that he claimed Anwar had had sex with him. Azizan had been the driver for Anwar's wife.

Anwar credited Abdullah for not interfering with the judiciary.

"You've got to recognize the fact that his predecessor wouldn't have made this judgment possible," Anwar said.

Anwar said that he felt "tired" and would wait for doctors to examine him before deciding his next move, but vowed to keep struggling for democratic reforms.

Hundreds of supporters cheered and shook Anwar's hands as he was wheeled out of the courtroom. His vehicle was escorted by police and he was expected to briefly go to his father's home — then his own.

Anwar has long claimed that the convictions were rigged to prevent him from challenging Mahathir for power.

"Finally, the courts have found courage which they never had under the Mahathir regime," said observer Param Cumaraswamy, vice president of the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists.

Anwar, jailed since 1998, had been expected to be in prison for another five years. A separate six-year corruption sentence ran out last year after it was reduced for good behavior.

Family members and political colleagues said Anwar would go to a hospital for provisional treatment, and try to get a passport enabling him to fly to a clinic in Germany.

"We want to take him to Munich today," said Azizah Ismail, his wife.

Anwar would fly on a private jet provided by the Saudi Arabian government, said Ezam Mohamad Noor, a leader in the National Justice Party, founded after his arrest.

Anwar has increasingly been confined to a wheelchair after the injury, blamed partly on a beating inflicted by Malaysia's then-police chief while Anwar was chained to a cell bed following his arrest on Sept. 20, 1998, after leading a massive anti-Mahathir demonstration.

Despite the ruling, Anwar's future remains a pale shadow of the glittering career before him in the mid-1990s, when Mahathir rapidly promoted him through the Cabinet ranks and his charismatic, modern outlook made him the country's most popular politician.

Anwar will remain barred from seeking office for five years because of his corruption conviction, which the courts have upheld in separate appeals proceedings.

Releasing Anwar ends a long international embarrassment for Malaysia. The United States and international human-rights groups contended he was a political prisoner.

The U.S. Embassy said in a statement that it was "gratifying to see that justice has now been served. We hope that swift medical intervention will restore Anwar Ibrahim to good health."

Anwar and Mahathir had clashed over how to deal with the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis — but underlying that was a challenge Anwar was thought to be mounting to replace Mahathir, who'd ruled since 1982.

Mahathir fired Anwar on Sept. 2, 1998. Anwar then led tens of thousands of protesters demanding democratic reform and an end to corruption.

Anwar was arrested, initially on national security grounds. He appeared in court Sept. 29, 1998, with a black eye and raising a clenched fist, a defiant image that blotted Mahathir's record as a statesman who transformed Malaysia into one of Asia's wealthiest countries.

Anwar was charged with corruption and sodomy — a crime in mostly Muslim Malaysia — and convicted in separate trials widely seen as unfair.