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Analysts: Malaysian PM, Society Benefit From Anwar Release - 2004-09-03

The release of Malaysia's best known political opposition figure, Anwar Ibrahim, after six years in jail, has brought widespread praise for Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who one year ago succeeded Malaysia's long-time leader, Mahathir Mohamad. The move has also given rise to questions about what was behind the release, and its political implications.

The release Thursday of former Deputy-Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim caught most observers by surprise. Malaysia's Supreme Court decided in a two-to-one ruling that the evidence used to convict Anwar Ibrahim of sodomy four years ago was not strong enough.

Professor Abdul Rashid Moten of Malaysia's International Islamic University summed up the general feeling, saying the decision was an example of judicial independence, something critics say was missing under former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

"There is [now] a total separation of powers [between] the executive and judiciary. They have shown total independence of one another," said Mr. Moten.

Anwar Ibrahim was arrested in 1998 during the Asian financial crisis, after he challenged Mr. Mahathir's leadership. Deputy prime minister at the time, Anwar Ibrahim, was being groomed to succeed Mr. Mahathir. He was convicted instead of corruption and sodomy and sentenced to six years in prison for corruption, nine for sodomy. He completed the corruption sentence this year.

The case angered many Malaysians and brought accusations, from Malaysians and foreign governments, of undue political influence on the judicial system. The ruling coalition suffered a major setback in elections the following year, although it retained its dominance in government.

Abdullah Badawi became prime minister when Mr. Mahathir resigned last year. A respected Muslim scholar who is also viewed as a moderate and a conciliatory politician, Mr. Abdullah pledged to address injustices in political and economic life and fight corruption.

The public responded enthusiastically, and in elections last March gave the governing coalition, led by his UMNO party, 90 percent of the seats in parliament.

Chandra Muzaffar, a former deputy leader of Anwar Ibrahim's Justice party, gives credit to the judges who overturned the sodomy conviction, but he also reflects the popular view that Mr. Abdullah had a hand in the ruling.

"For a lot of ordinary people, they would see this decision to release Anwar as a decision that was made by Abdullah," he said.

Professor Terence Gomez of the University of Malaysia also expresses the view that the prime minister played a part in the release, saying it is a good thing for both Malaysia's judicial system and Mr. Abdullah's image.

"It further enhances his [Abdullah's] image as a just man and a truly Islamic figure who will not allow oppression to continue to be perpetrated," he noted. "And it also helps him to deal with governments within an international perspective."

This year's elections were devastating for the opposition, including Anwar Ibrahim's Justice Party. The party lost all but a handful of seats in parliament and has been beset by internal rivalries ever since.

The former prisoner nevertheless says he intends to continue to press for reform. Professor Gomez says Anwar Ibrahim is charismatic and remains popular with many Malaysians and as a result, the government could be taking a chance by releasing him now.

"It would have been better for the Abdullah administration to allow the opposition to flounder, which would help reinforce its position in the next general election, rather than to give time for Anwar to come out now, get the opposition's act together, and then to mount a strong challenge," said Mr. Gomez.

However, other analysts note that Anwar Ibrahim will be barred from holding public office for five years because of his corruption conviction, unless that conviction is also overturned. And they say he has been physically weakened by a back injury and the years in prison. As a result, his ability to rejoin the political fray may be somewhat limited.

Despite the euphoria over the release, Professor Gomez warns this week's events do not necessarily mean political liberalization has arrived in Malaysia.

"There's no indication that the [news] media, for example, has been liberalized," added Mr. Gomez. "There is no evidence of a greater devolution of power within the executive to allow the anti-corruption agency to have great autonomy to act against even members of the executive if there are serious allegations of corruption against them."

The head of the Strategic Research Center, Abdul Razak Baginda, believes that the release is nevertheless a major development.

"This is obviously a beginning of a new dimension, not just [in] Malaysian politics, but Malaysian society, and I think as much as the world is bewildered by what has happened. Malaysians are coming to grips with this," he said.

Mr. Abdul adds that there had been a need for Malaysia to deal with the Anwar issue and, to the relief of many, he says, the Supreme Court has finally done just that.