KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysia's top court is hearing this week the final appeal by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim challenging his second conviction on sodomy charges 14 years ago. If the court affirms the guilty verdict, Anwar could be imprisoned for five years or longer. Below are some questions and answers about the case and its implications.
Q: Anwar was first arrested in 1998. Why is he still being targeted?
A: The government says there is no link between the cases against him and his status as opposition leader. But few people believe that to be true, and many suspect the ruling coalition is using the courts to try and silence the main threat to their long but slowly weakening grip on power.
Soon after he was ousted as deputy prime minister in 1998, Anwar led tens of thousands of people in street protests demanding reforms. The movement tapped into unhappiness among many Malaysians over racial discrimination and corruption in the government. He was arrested at its height, and later jailed for abuse of power and sodomy.
Anwar was freed in 2004, after the Federal Court overturned the sodomy conviction. Anwar then galvanized the disparate opposition into a formidable alliance. In 2008 general elections, it broke the government's stranglehold in parliament by winning more than one-third of the seats. In the 2013 elections, Anwar's alliance won more seats but not enough to form a government — despite winning the popular vote, about 51 percent, for the first time in history.
Q: Why sodomy charges? In this day and age?
A: The law prohibiting sodomy — consensual or otherwise — dates back to British colonial days. It makes it an offense to commit "carnal intercourse against the order of nature." Social attitudes are now widely shaped by Islam, the official religion in Malaysia, and there is little pressure on the government to repeal the law. It is punishable by up to 20 years in jail.
The sodomy charge functions as smear on the integrity of Anwar, who hails from Malaysia's majority Malay Muslims and needs to attract votes from that very same group to win power. Anwar and his supporters say the charges were trumped up to tarnish his reputation and destroy his political standing, especially among Malaysian Muslims who — taking their cue from their faith — reject homosexuality.
Human Rights Watch says sodomy laws contravene broadly accepted international legal standards and has called for them to be replaced with a modern, gender-neutral rape law. Neighboring Singapore refined its sodomy laws in 2007 to exclude heterosexuals who perform consensual anal sex. India repealed sodomy laws two years later.
Q: If Anwar is jailed, what will happen to the opposition alliance?
A: Anwar and his People's Justice Party are seen as the unifying force in the alliance, which also groups the Islamic Party and the ethnic Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party. Policy differences between the two parties were previously set aside for the 2008 elections, but they have recently resurfaced, straining the alliance. Without Anwar at the helm, the tension could get worse. Anwar himself has said the alliance will survive his absence, and he noted recently that such speculation "is probably good for my ego but as a fact, it is not true."
Some predict that jailing Anwar could create a wave of public anger like the one in 1998 that could galvanize the alliance, possibly bringing it gains at general elections that must be called by 2018. "If Anwar is imprisoned, that will be the tipping point," said opposition lawmaker Rafizi Ramli. "There will always be groups (of students and younger generation) who will take to the street. This generation believes this is their space and they will claim their space."
A jail term could effectively end Anwar's political career. The 67-year-old Anwar will be stripped of his parliament seat and will not be eligible to contest elections for five years from the day he is released. Amnesty International says it will consider Anwar "a prisoner of conscience" if he is jailed.