Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was acquitted of sodomy charges, in a Kuala Lumpur High Court ruling today.
The decision marks the end of a two year trial in which Mr. Anwar was accused of sodomy in a report filed by a former aide. Athough a large majority of Malaysians surveyed in recent opinion polls had believed the charges against were politically motivated, and outside observers, including foreign governments and human rights groups, condemned the charges, many were surprised by the acquittal, with international commentators expressing their pessimism before the ruling.
In the courtroom, many shouted "Allahu Akbar," or "God is great" after the judge finished reading the verdict, while members of Mr Anwar's family broke down in tears and mobbed him. Emerging from the court, Mr Anwar was greeted by cheers from thousands of supporters who had gathered to await the decision.
"Thank God justice has prevailed," an elated Mr. Anwar told reporters after. "I have been vindicated. To be honest, I am a little surprised."
Report: Anwar freed of sodomy charges (TODAY, 9 January 2012)
Mr. Anwar previously faced another sodomy conviction which was overturned in 2004. After serving 4 years in jail, he quickly returned to politics as the head of a revitalized opposition which united Islamists and secular social reformers amongst the ethnic Chinese and Indian population. Its strong showing in 2008's elections deprived the ruling National Front of its traditional two-thirds majority in parliament, challenging a coalition which has controlled Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957.
The international community had criticised Mr. Anwar’s latest two-year trial with the New York-based human rights organisation Human Rights Watch calling on Malaysia to “revoke its colonial-era law criminalizing consensual sexual acts between people of the same sex” and to drop the case against Anwar in a December 22 report. Sodomy is illegal in Muslim-majority Malaysia, even between two consenting men where the charge holds a sentence of as much as 20 years in prison.
Today's verdict paves the way for Mr. Anwar to run in the upcoming general elections, which must be held before June 2013, but which Malaysian Prime Minister Razak Najib's government already said plans were underway for last month.
Mr. Najib announced a budget in October that sparked speculation about an early vote, along with a series of civil liberty reforms the following month, which were seen as trying to appease protesters who clashed with police in demonstrations over corruption, and a lack of freedom of expression in the country.
Mr. Anwar was keen to turn attention to the polls. "Justice has been done. But we have a general struggle and we have to focus on the elections,” he said.
The opposition will be jubilant at Mr. Anwar's acquittal, but it is unclear what effect it may have on the elections. Analysts say that it is good that Mr. Anwar will be able to stand, having been seen as the only man who can challenge the government after 50 years in power, however, the opposition will be unable to count on a sympathy vote.
This latest decision for Mr. Anwar is part of a long series of events which have marked his life of political enagement. The most recent string of charges against him began in 1998, when Mr Anwar took up a campaign against the corruption, collusion and nepotism he said characterized Malaysia's business and political nexus.
Then-Prime Minister Mahathir immediately sacked him from his posts, and charges of sodomy and corruption soon followed - allegations Mr. Anwar insists were invented to prevent him from running his "reformasi" (reform) campaign.
Report: Anwar Acquitted in Malaysia Sodomy Trial (Bloomburg, 9 January 2012)
Report: The rise again of Malaysian reformer Anwar (Reuters, 9 January 2012)