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Drop the Charges Against Anwar Ibrahim

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Anwar Ibrahim is the leader of Malaysia's opposition. Since reemerging in Malaysian politics in 2007 he has done well, quadrupling the new opposition coalition's representation in Parliament, winning 47% of the popular vote, and taking control of six of Malaysia's fourteen states and territories in the March 2008 elections. He has become the biggest threat to the sitting government's 53-years of uninterrupted rule.

Perhaps that is why the Malaysian judiciary is pursuing a charge of sodomy against him, again. In 1998 he faced a similar ordeal in the midst of a popular uprising against the rule of then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed. Viewed as a threat to the ruling party's status quo, Anwar was sacked from his position as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, arrested and sentenced to 15 years solitary confinement after a trial many believed was marred by political interference, falsification of evidence, blackmailing, coercion and torture of witnesses, harassment of defense lawyers, and refusal to admit witness testimony favorable to the accused. Anwar's current trial looks to be a repeat of the travesty of justice that landed him in prison last time.

Firstly, there is overwhelming evidence that the charges are a government conspiracy. Just a few days before he filed the police report accusing Anwar of sexually assaulting him, the accuser met the current Prime Minister - Najib Razak, then Deputy Prime Minister. When asked about the meeting, Najib first denied it ever happened, but later changed his story, admitting that the meeting took place, but claiming that it was to discuss scholarship opportunities for the accuser, who is a college dropout. Najib then changed his story again, admitting that the accuser had come to him to complain about the abuse he had received under Anwar. Najib, the son of Malaysia's second Prime Minister, was at the time Prime Minister in waiting. It was he who had the most to lose from an ascendant Anwar Ibrahim and opposition coalition.

In the days before lodging his police report the accuser also met a police officer who had falsified evidence in the 1998 trial. And the current trial is being led by an Attorney General who is believed to have fabricated evidence in Anwar's previous trial.

Secondly, the charge does not match the accusation. The accusations - as detailed in accuser's testimony in court - suggest forced sodomy, effectively rape. By pursuing a different charge from the one made by the accused, the Attorney General is opening himself up to some embarrassing questions. If he believes that Anwar raped Saiful, why not charge him for it? But if he really believes Anwar and Saiful engaged in consensual sex, why only press charges against a popular leader of the opposition, and not also the former intern?

It is likely that he is not charging Anwar for the rape of which he is accused for the simple reason that he knows the charge would not stand. Anwar Ibrahim was almost disabled in 1998 after a near-death beating at the hands of the Malaysian police, is known to have a disabling back problem. It is completely improbable that he could mount an attack on a younger, more agile man. It looks very much like the Attorney General has ignored the charge because he knows that there will be insufficient evidence in court to make it stick.

A third suspicious aspect of the whole affair is the lack of evidence. If the accuser was indeed assaulted then there would be some evidence to prove it. However, forty-eight hours after the alleged incident he was examined twice, once in a private hospital and once more in the Kuala Lumpur General Hospital. In both cases doctors ruled out any possibility of assault or penetration - the minimum amount of evidence necessary for a court to proceed with a trial. Moreover, the lag in time from the alleged incident until the time he was examined leaves wide open the possibility of planting or fabricating evidence.

A fourth reason for suspicion is clear evidence of obstruction of justice in this case. Anwar's defense team and medical experts have yet to receive much of the information they need to do their jobs effectively. Medical reports, CCTV recordings, and even witness statements have all been withheld by the prosecution. The judiciary has systematically denied Anwar's attorneys access to the facts of the case before and during the trial, leaving the defense with one arm tied behind its back.

Lastly, the charges emerged just months after the opposition made unexpected gains in the 12th Malaysian General Elections and in advance of Anwar's threat to call for a vote of no confidence in Parliament and take over the government. There has been a general campaign to discredit and destabilize the opposition in general and vilify Anwar Ibrahim specifically, of which these charges seem to be just another example.

The Malaysian judicial system has acquired a poor reputation, taking in interferences with due process, the pursuit of political persecutions, and succumbing to political interference. This time, it looks like the system has not only abandoned the prospect of giving Anwar a fair trial, it has even abandoned any prospect of showing the world it is making any effort to give him a fair trial.

Only 10% of the Malaysian population believes the charges, and there has been a chorus of international outcry from lawmakers and human rights organizations in Australia, Europe, and the United States.

It is clear that the trial has been unfair from the start. Every day that it continues is a further blot on the Malaysian judiciary. The charges are tainted, inconsistent, and lacking credibility; the evidence flimsy where it exists; and the process skewed in the interest of the government.

I have no axe to grind in Malaysian politics. I am moved to write only by a sense of injustice, and outrage that this process might be allowed to stand. It does not just threaten Anwar Ibrahim. It threatens the development of Malaysian democracy, which would otherwise have the chance of being an example throughout the Muslim world.

In the interests of justice and Malaysia's international image, the case against Anwar Ibrahim must be dropped.

Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.