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March 10, 2014

Malaysia Judiciary Criticized Over Anwar Ibrahim Verdict

by Ron Corben

Legal advocates said an appeals court decision against opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and a separate high court verdict involving his lawyer, Karpal Singh, mark a further setback to the independence of Malaysia judiciary's.

Last week, Anwar Ibrahim was convicted by the Court of Appeal on a charge of sodomy, overturning a High Court acquittal of 2012. He was sentenced to five years in jail, but may remain free on bail while he appeals the verdict.
 
Now Anwar's legal counsel Karpal Singh faces up to three years imprisonment on charges of sedition under a 1948 colonial era law, when the High Court in Kuala Lumpur passes sentencing Tuesday.
 
Singh is head of the opposition Democrat Party and the charges relate to comments he made regarding a constitutional issue involving the Sultan of Perak.  
 
Human rights and legal advocates have criticized the judicial decisions, calling the verdicts politically motivated.
 
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for the U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch, said the verdicts appear to undermine the judiciaries' independence.

"You've taken down the head of the opposition in Anwar and you've taken down the president of the Democratic Action Party which is the second largest party in the opposition. This really is sort of trying to knock out the opposition using the courts and weaken them further so that they cannot cause problems," he said.
 
The sodomy charges against Anwar, dating back to 2008, were cleared by the High Court in 2012. The case followed similar charges brought against Anwar in the 1990s, along with corruption allegations.  
 
In 1999 he was sentenced to nine years jail for corruption and six years for sodomy, which is illegal in Muslim Malaysia. The country's Supreme Court overturned the conviction and he was released in 2004.
 
Anwar had been deputy prime minister under leader Mathathir Mohamad, before the two political leaders fell out over policies during Asia's financial crisis of the late 1990s. He had also accused the governing party of cronyism and nepotism and called for economic reforms.
 
Analysts claim the initial charges and conviction were also aimed at undermining Anwar's growing political popularity.
 
Since his release from jail Anwar has been rebuilding his political career and was preparing to contest a seat in the central state of Selangor on March 23.
 
Political analysts said Anwar was tipped to take the post of state chief minister.

According to Sam Zarifi, Asia-Pacific regional director for the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), the judicial processes appeared directed at sidelining Anwar from politics.
 
"The timing of the case obviously and the speed with which at the end they moved through the conviction and the sentencing and not hearing the mitigation case at all, which means effectively Anwar is not going to be able to stand again for parliament and therefore is basically out of politics for a while. All this suggests very strongly that there is a political motive to this that this is not a proper case," stated Zarifi.
 
Legal observers said the 2004 Supreme Court decision to release Anwar from jail had raised expectations that Malaysia's judiciary had regained its independence after the political influence associated with the verdicts against Anwar in 1999.
 
Both Anwar and Karpal Singh are expected to appeal their convictions.