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Anwar Sodomy Trial Hurts Malaysia's Reputation

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim leaves the High court in Kuala Lumpur on February 8, 2010

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim leaves the High court in Kuala Lumpur on February 8, 2010

In Malaysia the sodomy trial of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is to resume after the Court of Appeals rejected a motion to strike down the charges. No matter the outcome, the salacious nature of the charge of sodomy in a Muslim majority country could ruin Anwar's political future. And as VOA reports, the political overtones involved in the case may also damage Malaysia reputation as a progressive, Islamic democracy.

Anwar Ibrahim has been through this before. In 1998 while serving as the vice prime minister of Malaysia he was charged with sodomy, barred from parliament for a decade, and sentenced to nine years in jail. But in 2004 the conviction was overturned. Anwar says this second charge of sodomy is another attempt by the government to eliminate him as a political threat.

"I think the whole intention of this (inaudible) prosecution today is to smear my name, my good name and image with scurrilous attack on my character, but I believe, as in the case of 1998, when they talk with (inaudible) all the matters, everything will be expunged at the right time. So we have to remain patient and we will give a good fight," Ibrahim said.

Anwar is nothing if not resilient. In 2008 he came back to lead a three-party coalition called the People's Alliance that made significant gains in the general election. The vote ended the ruling party's two-thirds majority in parliament.

In that election many Muslim Malays, who traditionally support the leading party, the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, broke ranks and voted for the opposition.

Soon after Anwar was charged again with sodomy.

Charles Santiago is a member of parliament with the Democratic Action Party, which is in the People's Alliance. He says the charge was calculated to destroy Anwar's reputation within the Muslim community. "Anwar is seen as an Islamist leader, a Muslim leader, not only in this country but also elsewhere in the Muslim world," he explained. "And I think there is a perception that if his name is tarnished, especially involving sodomy or homosexual activities, then once and for all you destroy him both as a political leader and more importantly as an Islamic leader."

The current charge against Anwar includes allegations that in 2008 he had sexual relations with Mohd Saiful Bukhari bin Azlan, his 23-year-old male volunteer aide. Although initially filed as a non-consensual offense, prosecutors later changed the charge to consensual sodomy, though Saiful has not been charged. A conviction would force Anwar to vacate his seat in parliament and bar him from contesting the next general election, expected before 2012.

While sodomy is rarely prosecuted in Malaysia, UMNO official Syed Ali AlHabshee says once an accusation was made about a high-profile politician the government had to act.

"I mean whether he is right or not, I believe the government is giving him the fair trial. And he has the best lawyers. He's got everything with him. But he is a very smart politician. He tells the world that our judiciary is not fair," AlHabshee said.

This time Anwar's supporters wonder, even if he wins in court, can his political reputation survive?

Malaysia's international reputation as a progressive Islamic democracy is also being called into question. Some international organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, have urged Malaysia to drop the charges and decriminalize consensual homosexual conduct.

Zakaria Ahmad, a professor of politics with Help University in Kuala Lumpur, says the lurid headlines involving sex and political misconduct is making Malaysians more cynical about all politicians.

"Most people here have already come to the conclusion that politicians are all the same," Ahmad said. "You know what I mean? They just want to get power and they are all corrupt."

The trial was delayed repeatedly before it opened on February 2nd. It will resume now that Malaysia's Court of Appeal on Wednesday upheld a lower court decision to proceed. The Court of Appeal ruled rejected Anwar's motion to dismiss the case, saying he had "not shown that the charge against him was oppressive and an abuse of court."