HONG KONG -- Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has unexpectedly taken a meaningful stride away from the authoritarian rule of former Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohammad. As a result, the charismatic former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim will now be free to influence the course of Malaysian politics, though he will not be free to hold formal political office until April 2008.
Anwar was sentenced to six years in prison in April 1999 for corruption, and to nine years in prison in August 2000 for sodomy. Many regarded these as trumped-up charges, indicating, more than anything else, that Mahathir could not tolerate a powerful rival and kept the Malaysian judiciary under his thumb. Consequently, until now, Anwar's numerous appeals against his convictions were all rejected. He had already completed his sentence for corruption, six years with time off for good behavior in April 2003, and was now serving his 9-year sentence for sodomy. On Sept. 2, his final appeal against the sodomy charge was due to be heard by Malaysia's Federal Court. Anwar feared that this appeal would also be rejected.
But on Sept. 2, six years to the day since Mahathir dismissed Anwar as deputy prime minister, one Federal Court judge stated that the original conviction of Anwar was flawed because the chief prosecution witness had repeatedly changed the dates on which he claimed that Anwar had committed homosexual acts with him. Another judge announced that the panel of three judges, in a 2 to 1 ruling, had overturned Anwar's conviction for sodomy and he was therefore free and would not have to serve the remaining four years of that sodomy sentence.
Five days later, after a one-day hearing, the three-judge Federal Court panel decided to take the rare and unusual step of hearing an application by Anwar's lawyers that the court should review its own judgment confirming Anwar's conviction for corruption. The panel decided unanimously to overrule the attorney general's objection that it had no power to conduct such a judicial review.
This decision seemed important for two reasons. First, it suggested that the judiciary was carefully examining all possibilities that a gross injustice against Anwar may have occurred. The corruption case was related to the sodomy case. Since the sodomy conviction had been quashed, the possibility arose that the corruption conviction would also be overturned.
Second, if the corruption conviction was voided, then Anwar would be free to re-enter Malaysian politics and the Parliament immediately. If it was not quashed, Anwar would be unable to stand for Parliament or lead a political party until five years after completing the sentence for corruption, in April 2008.
Indicating the power that Anwar still exercises over Malaysian politics, these events loosened a torrent of speculation as -- for the first time in a long while -- the Malaysian press felt relatively free to report and comment on what was happening to Anwar. It also let loose a wave of anxiety within the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO), where those who have risen in Anwar's absence feared for their future if he returned.
Whether or not the political furor aroused by Anwar's release had anything to do with it, on Sept. 15 the Federal Court panel cited legal grounds for dismissing Anwar's appeal for a reopening his trial for corruption. This left Anwar free to influence Malaysian politics from the outside until 2008. It also left the Federal Court in the position of saying that Anwar was guilty of corruption in relation to a crime (sodomy) that it had earlier nullified.
Beyond all the political speculation, Anwar's overdue release has two important consequences. First, it enables him to try and repair his health, badly battered by his prison treatment. Healing is usually slow after the kind of a back operation that he underwent upon release. Anwar will probably require several months of rehabilitation before he can resume an active political life.
Anwar also needs time to mentally readjust since for six years in prison he was severely out of touch with the world with no television or Internet access -- a grave handicap for a still-aspiring reformist politician. One of his initial requests was to see the video tape of what actually happened in New York on 9/11.
Second, the immediate beneficiary of Anwar's release and recuperation is Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. Prior to the Sept. 23 UMNO General Assembly, he has healed a split in the community that angered many Malays. By quietly insisting that the rule of law must be left in the hands of judges, Badawi has burnished his own reformist credentials. By deftly leaving himself open to eventually meeting Anwar -- "We have not been fighting. I will see him. What is wrong with meeting him?" -- Badawi has gone some way toward diminishing the bitterness aroused by Mahathir's authoritarianism.
Harvey Stockwin, a Hong Kong-based journalist, has been reporting and analyzing Malayan and Malaysian politics since 1957.
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