More than a decade after he was beaten, tried and jailed, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim will once again face a Kuala Lumpur court today on charges of sodomy. The accusations are highly dubious and raise a serious question: Is this moderate Muslim democracy becoming a nation with no real rule of law?
The circumstances surrounding Mr. Anwar's prosecution are suspiciously familiar to most Malaysians. In 1998, he was arrested as he was mounting serious arguments against the increasingly erratic government of United Malays National Organization chief Mahathir Mohamed. On a nearby page, Mr. Anwar's former aide Munawar Anees describes being tortured and forced to confess to sodomy, a criminal offense in Malaysia. Mr. Anwar was convicted of sodomy and abuse of power and served six years in jail before the sodomy ruling was overturned in 2004. He was allowed to run for political office again in 2008, which he did, in earnest.
Mr. Anwar was arrested again in July 2008, a day after participating in his first nationally televised debate in more than a decade—an event that showcased his political skills and highlighted the growing momentum behind his three-party opposition coalition. He was accused of sodomy with a 23-year-old former aide, Saiful Bukhari Azlan. Mr. Saiful was taken into protective police custody after he made his allegation and has since rarely been seen in public. The government denies any political motivation for the charges. Mr. Saiful himself has not been charged.
As in 1998, the evidence in this case is thin at best. The police made a show of arresting Mr. Anwar, put him in jail for a night, and forced him to undergo a humiliating medical "examination." The government then passed a bill in parliament to give the police expanded powers to collect DNA in criminal cases. Mr. Anwar's lawyers claim they have a hospital report that shows no sodomy occurred.
Also troubling is the public involvement of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was deputy leader at the time of Mr. Anwar's 2008 arrest—and the man most politically threatened by Mr. Anwar's popularity. Mr. Najib acknowledged that he was photographed with and spoke to Mr. Saiful after he was allegedly sodomized and before he went to the hospital for tests. Mr. Najib says he didn't influence Mr. Saiful's decision to press charges. Mr. Saiful couldn't be reached for comment.
This story would sound familiar in a tinpot dictatorship. But Malaysia isn't one. Along with Indonesia, it forms the backbone of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Its citizens today have far more access to news and information through the Internet than they did 12 years ago. They also have the power to vote.
And that may be the mechanism that keeps Malaysia free and honest. Ordinary citizens—including the majority ethnic Malays—increasingly support Mr. Anwar's secular platform of religious tolerance, economic liberty and modernization. The opposition won five of 13 states in national elections in 2008, and it has since won seven of nine by-elections. Mr. Anwar was re-elected to parliament in a by-election the month after his arrest in 2008. There will likely be protests in front of the courthouse to show support for him.
The trial that begins today threatens domestic political unrest and undermines confidence, at home and around the world, in Malaysia's rule of law.
Published in the Wall Street Journal, 1 February 2010