By Blake Berger
In an unexpected move, Judge Zabidin Diah on January 9 abruptly acquitted Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim of sodomy charges, finally ending his politically-charged two year trial. In handing down his verdict, the judge said the DNA evidence was mishandled and could have compromised and said that the prosecution’s evidence did not corroborate the charges leveled against Anwar.
Most observers assumed that a guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion, including Anwar himself. The surprise acquittal will have wide-ranging implications for Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government, Anwar’s opposition coalition, and for Malaysia as a whole.
Anwar’s acquittal has the potential to deflect some criticism away from the Najib’s administration. The opposition has long claimed that the trial was orchestrated by the ruling UMNO coalition and that Najib’s government interfered throughout the trial. Now that the case was thrown out, those criticisms may ultimately fall on deaf ears. Following the verdict, the government’s information minister, Rais Yatim, said that the outcome demonstrates that Malaysia’s judiciary is independent and “proves that government does not hold sway over judge’s decisions.”
While the acquittal allows Anwar to remain at the forefront of the opposition movement, it might ultimately dampen its momentum and the strength of its criticisms. A guilty verdict and a long prison sentence would have galvanized the opposition and lent credence to its criticisms of the Najib administration, especially on the heels of the government’s harsh crackdown on protestors during the July Bersih 2.0 rallies in Kuala Lumpur. Instead, Anwar’s acquittal and Najib’s series of recent reforms, including his pledge to abolish the Internal Security Act, will likely placate some of the anger directed at his government. This will make it harder for the opposition to draw voters and may prompt the resumption of divisions within the fragile opposition coalition as their common rallying points lose some salience.
Beyond short-term electoral prospects, the ultimate winners in Anwar’s acquittal are the people of Malaysia themselves. An independent judiciary is essential to ensuring the rule of law and democracy in any country. If the Anwar verdict is any indication, Malaysia’s much-maligned judiciary may be becoming more impartial. This might suggest two important changes in Malaysian politics: — first, the ruling party may be less able to use the courts as a tool against its opponents, and second, politics in Malaysia may be become more open and transparent.
Blake Berger is a researcher with the CSIS Southeast Asia program covering Malaysia.