Sodomy conviction quashed for Malaysian reformer

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The Independent Online

Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia's most prominent political prisoner, was wheeled out of prison yesterday and set free after the country's highest court quashed a sodomy charge against the former deputy prime minister.

Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia's most prominent political prisoner, was wheeled out of prison yesterday and set free after the country's highest court quashed a sodomy charge against the former deputy prime minister.

Hundreds of supporters gathered outside the domed courthouse in Putrajaya to chant "Reformasi", in tribute to the movement that launched the firebrand politician into politics. However, by court order, Anwar will be banned from political office until 2008 because of an earlier corruption conviction. He is confined to a wheelchair.

The judges' 2-1 ruling came exactly six years after Mr Anwar was suddenly sacked by the former leader, Mahathir Mohamad, who, until then, had been grooming his deputy as a political protégé. Mr Anwar, who had led thousands of Malays in Kuala Lumpur to protest against government corruption and cronyism, was unceremoniously dumped just as a decade-long economic boom came to an end. He was sentenced to a total of 15 years for abuse of power and sodomy.

Two years ago, he lost his appeal against the corruption charge, which accused him of abusing his official powers to cover up sexual misconduct. Sodomy is a crime in Malaysia, a conservative Muslim country.

Mr Anwar's supporters claim that Mr Mahathir's government trumped up all the charges as punishment for challenging the ex-premier, who ruled with an iron fist for 22 years before retiring 10 months ago. The suave Mr Anwar, a former finance minister, was made a scapegoat for supposedly selling out Malaysia to foreign interests and alienating the business elite.

Mr Mahathir's successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, comes from Mr Anwar's home town of Penang, and was yesterday praised for allowing the ugly political rift to heal. The Kuala Lumpur stock market rose nearly 2 per cent after news of the verdict.

Mr Mahathir, now 78 and not about to start mincing his words, maintains that he sacked Mr Anwar because he was "morally unfit to rule" and insists that he never conspired with the judiciary to put his rival behind bars. "I'm not going to lose any sleep," the former prime minister said after the ruling. He added that he was "mildly surprised" by the federal court panel's 2-1 verdict to overturn the sodomy conviction, and emphasised that the decision was not unanimous.

Within days, Mr Anwar is expected to fly to Germany, where he will undergo surgery for spine damage allegedly sustained during a beating by the national police chief after his arrest in 1998. Analysts say Mr Anwar's release was brokered in exchange for keeping a low political profile and agreeing to go abroad almost immediately. He is expected to travel on a private jet provided by the Saudi Arabian government.

A US embassy statement said: "It is gratifying to see that justice has now been served. We hope that swift medical intervention will restore Anwar Ibrahim to good health."

Mr Anwar's lawyers argued that he was the victim of a political conspiracy and pointed out bizarre inconsistencies in the case. The original charge sheet stated that Mr Anwar sodomised Azizan Abu Bakar, his wife's driver, in May 1992. But the date was altered to 1994 after it was revealed that the condominium where the assault allegedly took place did not exist at that time. Prosecutors later amended the date to "sometime between January and March 1993".

After his release, Mr Anwar told reporters: "I feel vindicated. I bear malice against no one." But he maintained that the convictions had been "highly politically motivated".

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