Anwar Ibrahim loses ground to rival as Malaysia sodomy trial drags on

The slow-moving sodomy trial for Anwar Ibrahim underscores his bitter rivalry with Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has grown increasingly popular in Muslim-majority Malaysia since his election in April 2009.

By , Correspondent

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    Malaysia's opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, and his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, arrive at the courthouse in Kuala Lumpur July 19. The sacked former deputy prime minister is standing trial for alleged sodomy. Anwar, 62, has denied the charge and says it is a repeat of a government conspiracy that saw him dismissed as deputy prime minister in 1998.
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The controversial sodomy trial of Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was postponed Monday until Aug. 2 after his lead attorney fell ill.

The two-week delay is the latest setback in a slow-moving case that could sink the political career of Mr. Anwar, a former deputy prime minister. He has pleaded not guilty to sodomizing a male aide, a crime punishable by up to 20 years in jail in Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country. Even a lighter sentence would automatically disqualify him from holding public office.

Anwar accuses Prime Minister Najib Razak of conspiring against him in a virtual rerun of his highly politicized sodomy trial in 1998 that ended in a guilty verdict. Anwar was freed in 2004 after a higher court ruled his conviction unsound.

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Mr. Najib has denied any involvement. In May, Anwar’s accuser, Saiful Mohamad told the court that he met privately with Najib, who was then deputy prime minister, and Malaysia’s most senior policeman, before filing his complaint in June 2008.

Bitter rivalry

The trial has underscored the bitter rivalry between Anwar and Najib, who took over as prime minister last April after a near-defeat in 2008 for his ruling coalition. Anwar covets the same job, and was heir apparent to long-serving premier Mahathir Mohamed until Anwar was sacked and jailed in 1998.

Public interest in the latest trial has waned as the hearings drag on, in contrast to the rowdy scenes over a decade ago when Anwar’s supporters staged mass protests in the streets.

One reason is that Malaysians have already prejudged the outcome, says Ibrahim Suffian, director of Merdeka Center, an independent polling institute in Kuala Lumpur. “Most people have made up their mind that it’s all a political show trial,” he says.

Anwar's missteps

After a rocky start, Najib has won praise for his handling of the economy, which has rebounded after last year’s recession, and for taking on a corruption-plagued system of preferences for Malay-Muslims and other indigenous groups. A recent poll by Merdeka Center put his approval rating at 72 percent, up from 44 percent before he took power.

Distracted by the trial, Anwar has struggled with defections from his multiracial party, which is aligned with two other ethnic-oriented opposition parties. He has also courted controversy by labeling Malaysian government policies as “Zionist,” a slur that has raised eyebrows among his supporters in Washington.

These missteps have played into the hands of Najib, the scion of a political dynasty who is leader of the dominant United Malays National Organization (UMNO) in parliament. He has also courted the Obama administration, which has cited Malaysia as a moderate voice in the Muslim world.

In a show of support, Malaysia last week began the deployment of military medics in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Province. It has also toughened laws against the sale of dual-use nuclear technology in response to US concerns over proliferation.

But Najib must still struggle with the political dynamics of Malaysia, which has grown more skeptical of its rulers, says Wong Chin Huat, a politics lecturer at Monash University in Kuala Lumpur.

As more young people join the voter rolls, this trend could unseat UMNO, which is seen as self-serving and resistant to change. Some UMNO politicians have openly opposed Najib’s plans for greater meritocracy in public institutions and the private economy, arguing that ethnic privileges are sacrosanct.

“Najib is increasingly popular. The question remains whether popularity for him will translate into votes for his party,” says Mr. Wong.

When will the trial end?

It’s unclear when Anwar’s trial will wrap up. The judge said Monday that hearings would resume Aug. 2, with or without the lead counsel, and continue until the end of the month.

Anwar’s lawyers complain that the prosecution has refused to share material evidence and kept secret its list of witnesses. Several defense motions have been rejected, to the frustration of his supporters who accuse the judiciary of bias.

Speaking after the adjournment, Anwar denied that the sodomy allegation was affecting his support base. “The people are not really interested. They don’t ask me about the trial,” he says.

Among Malay-Muslims, homosexuality remains a taboo topic. Malaysia’s strict criminal codes against sodomy date from British rule and are found in other former British colonies, including Singapore and India. Last year, a court in New Delhi ruled that India’s antisodomy law was unconstitutional after a campaign group filed a complaint. But there has been little outcry in Malaysia over the harshness of the rarely used sodomy law.

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