Malaysia's charismatic opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim vowed yesterday to topple the government at elections expected later this year after being acquitted of sodomy charges following a trial widely criticised as politically motivated.
The verdict astonished many Malaysians as well as Mr Anwar, who had been braced for a possible 20-year jail sentence. It was the latest twist in a saga that has seen the reformist politician stage a comeback after being sacked as Deputy Prime Minister and left to languish in prison for six years.
"Thank God, justice has been served," he said, as thousands of his supporters cheered and celebrated outside the Kuala Lumpur court. The mood was briefly dampened when three small explosive devices went off outside the building, injuring five people. It was not clear whether they were linked to the case.
Mr Anwar had accused the Prime Minister, Najib Razak, of concocting the charges of sexual misconduct with a young male aide in order to neutralise him as a political opponent. At elections in 2008, his three-party People's Alliance made unprecedented gains, establishing itself as a threat to the hegemony of Mr Najib's National Front coalition, which has ruled Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957.
Four months later, he was arrested and charged with forcing the aide, Saiful Bukhari Azlan, to have sex with him in a city apartment. Homosexual sex is illegal in Malaysia, even between consenting adults.
For Mr Anwar – who claimed he was framed, pointing to evidence that Mr Saiful held a meeting with Mr Najib two days before filing his complaint – it was a case of déjà vu.
Once tipped to succeed Malaysia's long-time Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Mr Anwar fell out with Mr Mahathir in 1998, lost his job and was charged with sodomising his family's driver. Beaten up by in custody, he was released in 2004 after his conviction was overturned. Now Mr Anwar wants to wrest power from Mr Najib. Under his alternative vision for Malaysia, authoritarian laws would be scaled back, corruption stamped out and discrimination against ethnic Chinese and Indian Malaysians scrapped.
Yesterday's verdict "vindicates Mr Anwar and removes doubts about his personal conduct, which had been a concern, especially among Muslim voters", said Ibrahim Suffian, head of a leading polling firm, the Merdeka Centre.