In a rerun of a highly polarizing 1998 case, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim will stand trial Wednesday on a charge of sodomy that, if proven, could sink his resurgent political career.
The trial in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur is shaping up as a test of the independence of Malaysia’s judiciary, which has been dogged by scandals over influence-peddling and political interference.
Mr. Anwar, who was jailed for a sodomy conviction that was overturned in 2004, says that his accuser, a former aide, is part of a political conspiracy. At a pretrial hearing Tuesday, he told reporters that he would subpoena Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife, whom he accuses of cooking up the charge, to testify in court.
Homosexuality is illegal in Malaysia, a majority-Muslim country that has struggled in recent years with interfaith tensions. Last month, churches and mosques were attacked in a furor over the use of ‘Allah’ by a Christian newspaper, which some Muslims say infringes on their rights. Sodomy is punishable by up to 20 years in jail.
Mr. Najib took power last April and has sought to shore up a shaky ruling coalition in the face of Anwar’s opposition movement. He has denied being behind the sodomy accusation, which was lodged in 2008 just as Anwar was preparing a successful run for parliament after a court-ordered ban expired.
But there seems little doubt that "Sodomy 2," as Malaysian media have dubbed the trial, plays directly into the rivalry between the two politicians, who were colleagues in the ruling coalition before Anwar’s fall from glory and subsequent jailing.
“It’s clearly an attempt to weaken the opposition leader in a political maneuver. There’s no getting around it,” says Bridget Welsh, associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University.
The 1998 trial followed the sacking of Anwar, then deputy prime minister, by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. It was widely seen as a plot by Mr. Mahathir to destroy Anwar’s career and drew foreign criticism as a show trial. Vice President Al Gore said it “mocked international standards of justice.”
Critics say court is biased
In pretrial hearings, Anwar’s lawyers have sparred with judges over the sharing of prosecution evidence, including medical records of the accuser. Critics have derided the court as biased and pointed out that current Attorney General Gani Patail was found to have fabricated evidence in the 1998 case.
But it’s too soon to assess the court’s ability to handle the controversial case, says Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, a civil rights lawyer in Kuala Lumpur who is aligned with the political opposition. “In 1998 you could say quite safely that we had a judiciary that was extremely responsive to executive dictates. The judiciary right now … do not seem to be as much under the thumb as they used to be,” he says.