Malaysia's Anwar May Emerge the Hero in Sodomy Saga

The sodomy allegation confronting Anwar Ibrahim could end up helping him more than hurting him in his drive to lead Malaysia's opposition to power for the first time in history.

The mercurial former deputy premier says a 23-year-old aide's accusation of sodomy is part of a dark conspiracy to block him from ending the reign of the National Front, which has ruled uninterrupted since Malaysian independence in 1957.

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Much is at stake if the established order is overturned. The parties comprising the Front directly or indirectly own some of Malaysia's biggest companies and dispense patronage in the form of project contracts worth billions of dollars.

Ten years ago, then premier Mahathir Mohamad fired Anwar, his heir apparent, when they disagreed about how to handle Malaysia's plunge into the Asian financial crisis.

Anwar took his argument to the streets, was soon arrested on corruption and sodomy charges, and jailed for six years before the Federal Court, citing flimsy evidence, overturned the verdict in 2004 after Mahathir retired.

So perhaps it is not surprising that opinion polls show the vast majority of respondents believe Anwar is innocent of the charge. The court of public opinion, rather than the court of law, will most likely decide this case.

Images of Anwar showing up in court with a neck collar brace and a black eye at his 1998 sodomy trial after the police chief beat him up behind bars remain fresh in the collective memory.

"My take is that the likely outcome will be no prosecution, because this sort of thing will be incredibly difficult to prove, unless they have a video recording or a picture," said James Chin, professor of political science at Monash University, Malaysia. "It's one man's word against the other."

Anwar says he has a solid alibi backed by witnesses that proves he wasn't at a luxury Kuala Lumpur apartment at the time his accuser said they had sex there.

Independent Judiciary

The attorney-general, under investigation himself after Anwar filed a police report this week saying he fabricated evidence against him as a young prosecutor in the 1998 sodomy case, might think twice about taking Anwar to court.

Any trial could be long and controversial, a reprise of 1998, featuring angry protests and disenchantment in the majority Malay community over the humiliation of an iconic hero to many of them.

Moreover, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has taken pains to rehabilitate the tattered credibility and independence of the police and courts, making a guilty verdict this time far less certain this time.

Chin thinks Anwar is in a win-win situation, even if he is charged with a crime for which he can be jailed for up to 20 years. "If he's charged, he can claim it's a political prosecution and use it to mobilize his supporters. But if the government decides not to prosecute, he can go back to his supporters and say it's just harassing me."

In any case, the battle for power has been joined and the pace of events could start to accelerate.

The opposition alliance made historic gains in a March 8 general election, winning five of 13 state governments and coming within 30 seats of taking control of the 222-member parliament. The alliance has since been wooing defectors from Abdullah's National Front and insists it is on target to gain a parliamentary majority by mid-September.

Abdullah, meanwhile, has been fending off challenges to his leadership of the increasingly fractious United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the dominant part in the Front.

Things could come to a head when the party holds leadership elections in December. Deputy Premier Najib Razak hinted last Friday he would contest the party presidency.

"Anwar has no choice but to fight back hard," said Yang Razali Kasssim, Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University's School of International Studies in Singapore. "Politically, he has to deploy and accelerate all his moves to capture power."

Anwar will continue to bellow about a conspiracy to keep Abdullah and Najib on the defensive. "It will destabilize (the National Front) more than it helps Anwar for the very simple reason that people will say why is it that under Badawi there is crisis after crisis," Chin says.

The Anwar case has turned into a big headache at the worst time for Abdullah and UMNO, says Tricia Yeoh, director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies in Kuala Lumpur. "UMNO officials say privately they're worried about how this affects the party."

Yang Razali also sees the heat intensifying on Abdullah and his government, as the Anwar-led opposition mounts an all-out push to win over public opinion. "More (National Front) MPs may swing around to his side, fed up with what they see as yet another conspiracy to destroy an innocent man," he says.

"Anwar will then get the numbers to form government, which he says he already has, even as police investigations go on."