Anwar plans ‘innocence’ tour as trial verdict nears

(Sydney Morning Herald) – THE Malaysian opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, is planning a whirlwind tour of his country next week before the verdict in his controversial trial on a sodomy charge.

The outcome of the trial, which has captivated Malaysia, will help shape the future of the majority-Muslim country of 28 million people as it struggles to break away from a system of race- and religion-based politics.

Mr Anwar, 64, a father of six, who was once heir-apparent to the former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, says while he is ”optimistic” of walking free on the charge of having consensual sex with a 23-year-old male aide in 2008, he is a ”political realist” and ”ready to accept the worst”.

Under a British colonial-era law criminalising consensual sexual acts between people of the same sex, Anwar faces up to 20 years’ jail if found guilty when the Kuala Lumpur High Court announces the verdict on January 9.

Human rights groups have called for the charge to be dropped and the law revoked.

”The Malaysian government uses its outdated sodomy law to slander political opponents and critics,” the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, said.

”Whether or not Anwar Ibrahim engaged in consensual ‘sodomy’ is irrelevant … it’s time to reject this law and end the farcical theatre that promotes discrimination based on sexual orientation and destroys people’s lives,” Mr Robertson said.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak, has moved to open the country’s political system before elections next year, including a promise to scrap the harsh Internal Security Act.

The accusations against Mr Anwar emerged shortly after he had led the opposition to unprecedented gains in parliamentary polls against the ruling coalition that has governed the country for five decades.

”These are trumped-up charges,” Mr Anwar told journalists. ”It is another coincidence that the verdict comes so close to elections.

”The aim is to deny me the chance to participate in the elections. A lot of people pray that I should be acquitted.”

Anwar said that during the tour, beginning on Tuesday, he will reiterate his innocence.

During the marathon trial, which began in February last year, Mr Anwar delivered a long courtroom tirade accusing the trial judge and government of conspiring to send him ”into political oblivion”.

”It is a vile and desperate attempt at character assassination,” he told the court. ”They can do all they want to assassinate and sully my character and threaten me with another 20 years in jail, but, mark my words, they won’t be able to cow me into submission.”

Quoting the Koran and Shakespeare during a one-hour courtroom speech, Mr Anwar accused the trial judge, Mohamad Zabidin Diah, of demonstrating a ”complete lack of impartiality”.

Mr Anwar’s lawyers called a series of expert witnesses who raised doubts about the credibility of forensic evidence presented by prosecutors.

An Australian forensic expert, Brian McDonald, told the court that DNA testing and labelling was not up to international standards and was riddled with errors.

This is the second time Mr Anwar has been embroiled in a sex trial. He lost his post as deputy prime minister in 1998 after being charged with sodomising his family’s former driver and abusing his powers to cover up his actions – both of which he denied.

Two years later he was found guilty and sentenced to nine years’ jail. The conviction was overturned in 2004.

While in jail Mr Anwar suffered severe facial injuries from a beating by a senior police officer.

His lawyers claimed rights violations against him including lack of access to legal counsel and witness harassment.

Anwar’s aide Mohamad Saiful Bukhari Azlan initially filed a complaint that Mr Anwar had forcibly sodomised him.

Police charged Mr Anwar with having consensual sex after it was determined his bad back would have made him incapable of forcing himself on Mr Azlan, who has not been charged.