Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – A decade since a judge freed Anwar Ibrahim from prison over sodomy and corruption charges, the beleaguered 67-year-old Malaysian opposition figure is again facing the prospect of a lengthy jail term on similar allegations.
In a decision in March that took just 90 minutes, judges allowed a government appeal against his 2012 acquittal on charges of sodomy – a crime in Malaysia – and sentenced him to five years in prison.
Anwar and his lawyers return to court on Tuesday to appeal the ruling and, they say, hopefully reverse it once and for all.
“There’s a lot of concern about whether the court will adjudicate fairly, justly, based on facts of the law,” Anwar said during an interview at his party headquarters on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. “Nobody, certainly not my family, not at my age, wants me to return to prison, but what do I do? I have to endure. [I must] continue this fight with courage.”
Anwar was a senior figure in the ruling party and deputy prime minister before being sacked and jailed at the height of the 1998 Asian financial crisis, bringing thousands of supporters onto the streets. Anwar, who was denied bail and beaten in custody during the first trial, has long maintained the charges against him are politically motivated.
This has nothing to do with the government... It's not the Malaysian ruling coalition that is in the dock this week - it is Anwar that is in the dock.
The government has repeatedly denied that this is the case.
“This is a case that was brought by a complainant who used to work for Anwar Ibrahim, not a case of the ruling coalition against Anwar. It’s not a case of persecution by the government against Anwar Ibrahim,” Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin told Al Jazeera in an interview at his office in Putrajaya on Monday.
“The high court decided to acquit him. The Court of Appeal decided to overturn that decision. Now it’s gone to the final Appellate Court. This has nothing to do with the government. It is not the government of Malaysia, it’s not the Malaysian ruling coalition that is in the dock this week – it is Anwar that is in the dock this week.”
‘A bad movie’
The latest hearing takes place amid a deterioration in Malaysia’s political environment. At least 14 people have been investigated or charged under the Sedition Act in the past year, including lawyers on Anwar’s own defence team, opposition politicians, and academics, despite Prime Minister Najib Razak’s 2012 promise to repeal the colonial-era law.
“Indonesia is embracing democracy the same month that Malaysia moves back 16 years to the remake of a bad movie,” said Bridget Welsh from the Center for East Asian Democratic Studies at the National Taiwan University.
“It strengthens Anwar. Every day he’s in jail is a blight on Malaysia’s card. Najib is asking for trouble. He is asking for a response. The government should focus on the country’s problems, rather than politics.”
When Najib first became prime minister five-years ago in the wake of what was then the ruling coalition’s worst-ever electoral performance, he announced a comprehensive package of both political and economic reforms.
The promise to repeal the Sedition Act followed the abolition of other colonial-era legislation, including the Internal Security Act, which allowed for detention without trial and was often used against government critics.
Najib’s economic reforms – including improvements to education, a crackdown on corruption, and a gradual reduction in subsidies – were designed to strengthen the Malaysian economy. But with wages showing little growth over the past decade and prices rising, ordinary Malaysians have been struggling to make ends meet.
Many fear next April’s introduction of a goods-and-services tax will only make the situation worse, even with changes to income tax and government handouts that are intended to soften the blow for the country’s poorest.
The economy is expected to expand 5.7 percent this year, but ordinary Malaysians are feeling squeezed. At 86.8 percent, Malaysian households have much higher levels of debt than many of their counterparts in other developing economies.
“There is a sense of fatigue for politics and rabble-rousing,” said Ibrahim Suffian of the Merdeka Center, which manages the country’s most reliable public opinion surveys.
“People have economic concerns and are worried about making ends meet. Putting Anwar in jail risks adding to that undercurrent. Him being in there could be a symbol for what’s wrong with the system.”
Still, Anwar’s possible incarceration comes at a difficult time for the opposition coalition as well.
The opposition political coalition Pakatan Rakyat – which won the popular vote for the first time in last year’s general election, even as Najib’s coalition was again returned to power – has been embroiled in a protracted dispute over the leadership of the state of Selangor, Malaysia’s richest and most populous.
Azmin Ali took the leadership following months of uncertainty and a disastrous by-election that was supposed to propel Anwar to the post, but was derailed by the March sodomy appeal decision. Azmin has moved quickly to repair the coalition’s reputation with the electorate. His Twitter feed is regularly updated with pictures of him inspecting rubbish dumps, and directing repairs to potholes and broken drains.
Mending the coalition itself – which groups together Anwar’s Justice Party, the Democratic Action Party, and the Islamic Party – may take longer.
Anwar, talks supportively of 50-year-old Azmin who has stood by him throughout the ups-and-downs of his political career, and insists the coalition can survive.
“We should strive to make sure that we continue to be a more cohesive force,” he said. “But I do acknowledge that we now must mend fences with the Islamic Party.”
They think they can solve the problems of Malaysia by putting Anwar in prison. I must remind them that they put Anwar in jail for six years already, and they have not solved the problems.
Opposition to sedition
Meanwhile, opposition to the Sedition Act is growing. The Bar Council, which represents the nation’s lawyers, earlier this month marched to Parliament for only the fourth time in its history to show its opposition to what the Bar’s President Christopher Leong described as an “unjust” law.
Standing in a car park, under the leafy shade of some rain trees, Leong addressed the hundreds of lawyers who’d turned up for the event.
“We are here this morning to claim back [our] democratic public space,” he said to loud cheers. “We are here to say that as much as you might try you cannot stifle free speech [and] you cannot stop expression or thought by thinking Malaysians.”
Despite the searing heat, all wore their court dress of black suit and white shirt, decorating their lapels with badges calling for the act’s repeal.
“In the 1990s, Malaysia was booming and many people, including working professionals, were intent on making money and doing well for themselves,” said Roland Koh, a corporate lawyer who joined the walk. “We took our eyes off what was happening – the Constitution was amended many times, there were shifts in the balance of power – and today we are paying the price. It is very unhealthy for Malaysia. Middle Malaysia must stand up.”
Najib said he remains committed to the Sedition Act’s repeal, aiming to replace it with a National Harmony Act that is in the process of being drafted.
Certainly in the years since Anwar was last jailed, triggering the reformasi or the reform movement, a vibrant and vocal civil society has emerged in Malaysia. The younger generation raised on the internet, Facebook, and Twitter are less afraid to voice opinions and criticise what they see as unfair or unjust.
As for Anwar, he said he’s prepared for whatever comes next.
“They think they can solve the problems of Malaysia by putting Anwar in prison,” the opposition leader chuckled. “I must remind them that they put Anwar in jail for six years already, and they have not solved the problems.”
Florence Looi contributed to this report.
Follow Kate Mayberry on Twitter: @kate_mayberry