Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim made his all-too familiar walk from car to courtroom on Tuesday. He has perfected the art of smiling serenely as cameramen and photographers crowd in, and his supporters push back – an unwieldy scrum shuffling its way slowly into court. But then he has had a lot of practice.
Three hours or so later he was performing another familiar ritual – the post-court news conference – making a familiar defence: the charges against him were politically motivated, orchestrated by the Prime Minister, Najib Razak.
“We have asked him to conduct free and fair elections,” Anwar said. “He cannot use this charge against us to disallow us or harass us from effectively campaigning for the elections.”
Anwar and two opposition party colleagues have been charged over their actions at the “Bersih 3.0” rally on 28 April. “Bersih” means “clean” in Bahasa Malaysia. It was the latest protest in a campaign for electoral reform before elections that many expect to be called soon.
Anwar was filmed making hand signals to his colleagues, moments before protesters pushed over police barricades and ran towards a cordoned-off square, triggering hours of violent confrontation. The accusation is that Anwar ordered the breach. He’s charged under the penal code, and the new Peaceful Assembly Act.
I asked him whether it wasn’t natural that such video evidence be tested in court.
“This is the first time in the history of any court proceedings that you have like this (making hand signals) as the measure of being charged. A charge based on some signals. I say publicly in the video, turn to your right. Left is Merdeka square. And they say it’s not what you said – it was the signals.”
In 1998, Anwar – then deputy to the Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad – was chucked out of the government, and tried on charges of corruption and sodomy, sentenced in 1999 and 2000 respectively. In 2004 the sodomy conviction was overturned, and he was released from jail.
Barred from standing as an MP, he led the opposition coalition from the sidelines in the 2008 election, seeing unprecedented gains against the National Front – which for the first time in more than 50 years in power lost its two-thirds majority. He later gained a seat in parliament through a by-election, after his five-year ban expired.
Then came “Sodomy 2”. Anwar was charged after being accused of sodomising a male aide. After a near-two-year trial, he was acquitted in January. When I interviewed him then, he seemed as shocked as anyone. The government said the verdict disproved Anwar’s allegations of political interference, demonstrating instead the independence of Malaysia’s courts.
The other interpretation was that a government that had for months been trying to show itself to be a reforming, liberalising administration, couldn’t afford to be seen to be locking up the leader of the opposition. But if that were the case, then why this new raft of charges?
According to the government, the answer is simple:
“The public prosecutor decides whether to press charges against an individual based solely on the strength of the evidence against them. It is the Attorney General’s prerogative to decide which cases to pursue. Everybody is equal in the eyes of the law.”
The other question is what effect all this will have on the election. The analysts we spoke to thought it wouldn’t have much influence on voting: it would more likely cement opinion about Anwar on both sides.
But having to make court appearances, and mount a legal defence, is bound to distract Anwar and his colleagues from the campaign. And if he’s convicted, with a fine of more than 2000 Ringgit (US$637), he won’t be able to contest his parliamentary seat.
Anwar will have a legal and a political battle to fight in parallel in the coming months. He maintains it’s one and the same thing.