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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.

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Anwar, who previously served six years in jail on a separate sodomy conviction that was overturned in 2004, accused the government of again trying to eliminate him from politics on what he and his supporters described as another fabricated charge, this one made by a former aide in 2008.

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That charge came soon after Anwar’s three-party opposition group, called the Pakatan Rakyat (People's Alliance), an unwieldy amalgam, took just over one third of the seats in Malaysia's parliament after a best-ever showing in 2008 elections. That result made the Alliance appear a realistic threat to eventually replace the National Front.

For hours before Monday's verdict, some 2,500 opposition supporters chanted and prayed outside the court building, a mosque-like structure with a domed roof, to await what many Malaysians assumed would be a guilty verdict, given Anwar's prior conviction and allegations of a rigged court.

Case dismissed

But the judge, Mohamad Zabidin Diah, dismissed the case based on concerns that the prosecution's DNA evidence was tainted. After the acquittal, Anwar said that he was happy to be free, but nonetheless slammed the Malaysian judiciary as flawed, after edging his way through a throng of supporters who chanted “reformasi,” the name of the political reform movement started by Anwar in the late 1990s, when he broke with the government after serving as deputy prime minister to Malaysia's long-term leader, Mahathir Mohamad, famous for lecturing the West on the merits of “Asian values” such as social stability and respect for family.

A government statement landed in journalists’ inboxes within minutes of today's verdict: “Malaysia has an independent judiciary and this verdict proves that the government does not hold sway over judges’ decisions,” it said.

According to Pui Yee Choong, a political researcher at Singapore's Nanyang Technical University, today's verdict will allow the incumbent government to portray itself as magnanimous in the run-up to the election. “They can claim that it has never been the case that anyone from the ruling party wanted to end Anwar’s political career,” she says.

But though Anwar and the opposition might lose some of the sympathy and protest appeal that could have come from his imprisonment, the acquittal means he can now run as an alternative to current prime minister in the upcoming elections, which just might now be fought over what substantive policy issues, such as Malaysia's economy, according to Ibrahim Suffian, head of the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research, a Malaysian think tank.

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