By Blake Berger
Less than two weeks after Judge Zabidin Diah acquitted Anwar Ibrahim of sodomy on January 9, the spotlight has been re-focused back on Anwar and the Malaysian judiciary. On, January 20, Attorney-General Gani Patail responded to calls from lead prosecutor Mohd Yusof Zainal Abiden to appeal the judge’s verdict.
Anwar’s acquittal had been praised both domestically and internationally. Even Prime Minister Najib Razak in an interview with the Wall Street Journal said that the verdict had provided evidence that the Malaysian judiciary was free of executive interference and further underscored that he was serious about his reform initiative.
With the appeal, critics have called the prime minister’s statements and the sincerity of his reforms into question. Coinciding with the appeal of Anwar’s acquittal, the case against Karpal Singh, Anwar’s lead legal counsel and national chairman of the opposition Democratic Action Party , who had been acquitted of sedition in 2010, was reopened and his acquittal appealed by the court on the same day. Both Anwar and Karpal are senior figures in the opposition coalition.
The prosecution’s appeal of both cases not only shifts the spotlight away from Prime Minister Najib’s reform initiatives, but again raises questions about the rule of law and the state of democracy in Malaysia.
Anwar’s acquittal on January 9 had originally deflected questions about judicial interference and had seemingly put to rest the opposition’s claims that the government had politically targeted Anwar. The mounting of both appeals on the same day has reopened questions about the independence of the judiciary with a new fervor.
It is hard to pinpoint on what grounds the Attorney-General’s office is appealing the Anwar verdict; especially since the judge had found the prosecution’s DNA evidence as possibly having been compromised. The two appeals will now lend further credence to the opposition’s claims that ruling coalition is politically persecuting Anwar. Analysts argue the appeals may in turn further bolster support for the opposition leading up to national elections due before March 2013.
Observers are not sure how independently the judiciary operates in Malaysia these days. But the appeal will likely detract from the prime minister’s reforms and will allow the opposition to charge that the government is persecuting its opponents and using the courts to weaken the opposition ahead of the upcoming elections. The appeals will also make the environment around the upcoming elections more volatile and unpredictable.
Anwar spent six years in prison on earlier sodomy charges before a judge overturned his conviction in 2004. The new charges were filed against Anwar in the current case shortly after the opposition coalition lead by Anwar resulted in the ruling party losing its two thirds majority in Parliament in elections in 2008.
Blake Berger is a researcher with the CSIS Southeast Asia program covering Malaysia.