Malaysian politics and the law: Long arms


The Economist

SHOCK has turned to anger after two court rulings in the space of a few days in effect suspended, if not finished, the careers of two of Malaysia’s most prominent opposition politicians. First, on March 7th, the veteran leader, Anwar Ibrahim, of the opposition’s alliance, Pakatan Rakyat (PR), had his acquittal in 2012 on a charge of sodomy overturned by the Court of Appeal; he now faces five years in jail. And then on March 11th Mr Anwar’s lawyer, Karpal Singh, also an MP and chairman of one of the three parties that make up PR, was convicted of sedition. He escaped prison, but was fined 4,000 ringgit ($1,250). The conviction was enough to ensure that by law he has to stand down as an MP.

Both are appealing against the verdicts, which have drawn widespread condemnation, from Malaysia’s own lawyers among others. In the case of Mr Karpal, even the UN has joined criticism of the prosecution for using outdated and discredited legislation to secure the conviction. The opposition alleges that the prosecutions amount to a concerted offensive to hobble it after its best-ever result in the general election held last May. Sedition charges are hanging over several other activists and opposition politicians, including Tian Chua, vice-president of Mr Anwar’s party.

There was a strong sense of déjà vu about Mr Anwar’s conviction. His case has been rumbling on since he was accused in 2008. Known locally as Sodomy 2.0, it followed Mr Anwar’s conviction and jailing for the same offence in 1999, a verdict that was overturned in 2004. Since colonial times, sodomy has been illegal in Malaysia, which has a Muslim majority, but prosecutions are rare. Mr Anwar argues that he is a victim of politically motivated charges designed to knock him out of politics.

Certainly, the sodomy cases seem to come at the most inconvenient times. Mr Anwar’s latest sentencing came only a few days before he was due to be nominated as a candidate in a critical by-election for an assembly seat in Kajang in the state of Selangor, Malaysia’s richest. People in the court were surprised at how quickly the three judges wrapped up the trial and handed down the jail term. Had he won in Kajang, he was expected to become Selangor’s chief minister. That would have afforded him a good perch from which to assail the government. Mr Anwar is now disqualified from holding political office.