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Malaysian Ruling Party Vows to Pursue Legal Action Against Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim


Malaysia's governing United Malaya National Organization, UMNO, is pressing on with legal action against opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who faces allegations of sexual abuse. Anwar has vowed to move ahead with plans to lead the Malaysian government by September despite the charges. Ron Corben has more in this report from Bangkok.

Malaysia's Home Minister, Hamid Syed Albar, told a gathering of 90 diplomats at a briefing this week in Kuala Lumpur that he would be providing foreign missions with what he termed "the real story" about allegations of sodomy against opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim.

Anwar has rejected the allegations raised in June by a 23-year old aide, Mohamad Saiful Bukhari Azlan, saying it is a conspiracy to prevent him from challenging the current coalition government led by the United Malays National Organization, UMNO, in power since 1957.

The allegations came exactly two months after Anwar returned to Parliament following a ten year absence.

In 1998, Anwar had been deputy prime minister under Malaysia's longest serving prime minister, Mahathir Mohammad, and considered the anointed successor when he challenged Mr. Mahathir to step aside.

Instead, Anwar was fired as deputy prime minister and faced charges of corruption and sexual abuse. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison but eventually served just six years in jail for corruption charges.

In 2004, Malaysia's Federal Court overturned a sodomy conviction pointing to weaknesses in the prosecution's case.

But in June, new charges of sodomy resurfaced.

In early July, Anwar maintained he would press on with the bid to seize power from what he had termed, "a corrupt government". He added he would fight the allegations "day and night" saying the young man accusing him was "being manipulated by powerful forces".

On July 16, Anwar was arrested at his home, an hour before a deadline for him to appear at the police headquarters. He was held in jail overnight.

Professor Carl Thayer, a regional security analyst at the Australian National University, says the allegations appear to be part of a struggle by the ruling party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) to fend off the threat from Anwar and his supporters. "The core elite that gathered in the UMNO - the United Malays National Organization - have been absolutely ruthless under various prime ministers, particularly (Dr) Mahathir (Mohammad) in making sure that their supremacy is maintained. And although (Prime Minister) Badawi was seen as less harsh, what this is demonstrating is that some of his colleagues are playing a vicious game," he said.

But Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar has denied charges of a political conspiracy adding the government was not expecting a political backlash.

Zawbry Abdul Kadir, a senior UMNO Party member, says despite Anwar's allegations of conspiracy he had to accept the rule of law.

"What we're suggesting is the rule of law must take place. The problem now is that Anwar is going around trying to question the legitimacy of these institutions, including the police institutions, our judicial system and as a result it creates more confusion among the Malaysian and it makes it into more political in nature," he said.

Soon after the latest allegations surfaced, opinion polls showed strong support for Anwar. But the UMNO Party's Kadir says the people have been reacting emotionally. "We really have to look at this objectively that is why I care that Malaysians are more rational now to look at this case whether it is real or a concocted one or 'an old script being played out again' or not. I think slowly, I'm sure slowly the Malaysians will come to rational ground," he said.

In elections earlier this year Anwar and the opposition won an unprecedented 82 seats in parliament, as well as control of five of Malaysia's 13 states. The poor showing by UMNO increased pressure on Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi to announce he would step down by 2010.

Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak is the likely successor. But Najib's position has been clouded by reports of links with a Mongolian woman who was murdered in 2006. Najib denies he knew the woman.

Thayer said the sodomy allegations against Anwar may enable UMNO further time to regroup and fend off the opposition leader's challenge for power. "The sodomy charges have derailed movement in that direction for the moment and put it off. Until those charges are resolved it buys time for Badawi and Najib and others to react. For example, which could be, the Prime Minister (Badawi) falls on his sword and resigns and takes off some of the local heat so the elite in UMNO can maintain their positions of power?"

Anwar is viewed as "bridging the divide" in Malaysia between the differing communities while his success at toppling the current coalition is dependent on defections from the ruling UMNO.

But Kadir believes the latest case against Anwar would undermine his plan, along with possibly weakening relations between the opposition parties.

"The way we look at it now he's having his own personal problems, let it solve by going into the proper judicial process rather than making it into a full blown political in nature. It will surely affect him somehow on this plan to become the prime minister in waiting in September. Probably it will affect the political pact between these few parties among themselves," he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this week urged Malaysia to be transparent and follow the rule of law in dealing with the sodomy accusation against Anwar. Hours later, Malaysian Foreign Minister Rais Yatim accused Washington of meddling in his country's domestic affairs and told U.S. officials to stop commenting on the Anwar case. The two officials made their comments at separate news conferences in Singapore where they were attending a regional security meeting.

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