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After sodomy acquittal, Malaysia's Anwar pressing for power

In an unexpected conclusion to a two-year trial, a Malaysian court acquitted opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges that he insisted were politically motivated.

By Correspondent / January 9, 2012

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim speaks during an interview at his residence in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Jan. 9.

Lai Seng Sin/AP


Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Monday's surprise acquittal of Malaysia's opposition leader in a sodomy trial that many viewed as politically motivated eases the prospect of unrest in the multi-ethnic country, one of southeast Asia's largest tourist draws.

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The potential for trouble was highlighted by three small explosions near the courthouse on Monday morning, injuring several people, while a jubilant Anwar Ibrahim mingled with a raucous, fist-pumping crowd of several thousand supporters. Mr. Anwar, a former government insider who has been hounded by legal actions over alleged sodomy since he broke with Malaysia's ruling party in the 1990s said, “I thank God for this great news, I am finally vindicated.”

The ruling benefits not only Anwar, who's planning to run for prime minister in upcoming elections, but it may also help the current government burnish democratic credentials dimmed by trials like Anwar's and the detention of other political opponents. 

A guilty verdict would have shown-up the judicial system as unfair, says Greg Lopez, who studies Malaysia at Australian National University, and would have “made a martyr” out of Anwar.

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The ruling comes four months after Prime Minister Najib Razak promised to amend anti-democratic laws, including ending the requirement that media outlets must reapply each year for a new permit, something free speech advocates say leads to self-censorship.

Pressing for power

Anwar's political coalition made serious inroads into the current government's long-standing domination of Malaysia at the last elections, held in 2008. He told journalists today “we must focus on the next general elections and the reform agenda, we hope for an independent judiciary and free media.” The next vote is required to take place by the middle of 2013 and will likely to be called this year, according to Mr. Lopez.

Malaysia is a middle-income country with aspirations to join the ranks of the first world economies. It aims to have citizens attain average annual incomes equal to those of OECD states by 2020. But Anwar and supporters say Malaysia is not a functioning democracy and last July he led around 20,000 people in a rare protest in the streets in Malaysia's largest city, Kuala Lumpur.

The rally sought changes to the electoral system, which they said was rigged in favor of the incumbent government – a coalition of Malay, Chinese, and Indian political parties known as the Barisan Nasional (National Front) that has run the country since 1973.

The police response to the peaceful rally was heavy-handed; protestors were doused with tear gas and a water cannon and more than 1,500 people were arrested. The crackdown drew worldwide attention, and Anwar, who was injured while taking part, held it up as an example of government failings.   


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