I will walk again for the third time into prison but rest assured that I will walk in with my head held high. I maintain my innocence… I will not surrender… We will keep fighting….~ Anwar Ibrahim to the Federal Court justices.
Tuesday, February 10th, was a particularly black day for Malaysia: the Federal Court upheld Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim’s conviction for sodomy. Following the court’s ruling, the 67-year-old grandfather was led away to serve his five-year jail term at the Sungai Buloh prison. Anwar had previously been incarcerated there following an earlier conviction on a separate sodomy charge; that conviction was subsequently repealed.
The decision of the Federal Court, the highest court in the land, was widely condemned as a travesty of justice both at home and abroad by governments, human rights groups and in newspaper editorials.
At home, the Coalition for Free & Fair Elections (BERSIH) called the decision “a political persecution reflective of an extremely flawed democracy” that makes the case for reforming the judiciary even more compelling. Human rights group SUARAM said that Anwar’s conviction “will further tarnish the credibility of Malaysia’s justice system and the country’s international image.”
A respected Malaysian commentator, Kim Quek, was more forthright in his condemnation of the verdict. Pulling no punches, and at no small risk to himself, he said that the judgment was “so contrived and so bereft of elementary legal sense” that it left us with “the irresistible deduction that the dirty hands of politics [were] at work again.” He added that “the unjust conviction and jailing of Malaysia’s parliamentary opposition leader against all human decency and legal principles has marked a new low of the judiciary, unseen in living memory.” Another commentator noted that “to incarcerate one man, with a single stroke of the pen, fundamental laws of evidence have been re-written.”
Major international newspapers like The New York Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, Le Monde, The Guardian and The Globe and Mail featured the case prominently, bringing Malaysia the kind of scrutiny that was long overdue. The Washington Post, in its editorial, called the criminal case against Anwar “as morally reprehensible as it was farcical” and urged President Obama to shun Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Western democracies, though more nuanced in their criticism, made clear that they were not buying the government line that this was a well-considered and impartial judgement arrived at by an independent judiciary.
The US, Australia, the UK, Canada, Germany and the EU all expressed their disappointment with the verdict, as well as concern over the rule of law in Malaysia and the direction the country was taking. The Swiss Government went further, promising to raise the matter at the next session of the UN Human Rights Council as well as at the next round of bilateral political talks with Malaysia later this year. The Swiss reminded Malaysia that human rights issues are part of the ongoing free trade talks between Malaysia and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), for which Switzerland is the lead EFTA negotiator.
International human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were outraged calling the judgement deplorable, politically motivated and part of a relentless campaign to silence government critics. Amnesty International, for the second time, declared Anwar a prisoner of conscience.
The International Commission of Jurists weighed in with a statement saying that it was clear that the Penal Code was inappropriately used against a political opponent, while the International Federation for Human Rights declared the verdict a “disgraceful conclusion of a relentless judicial campaign against Anwar Ibrahim.”
Clearly, it is the government and the judiciary rather than Anwar that now stand condemned both at home and abroad. The trial and conviction of Anwar also appears to have left Prime Minister’s Najib’s reformist reputation in tatters and his administration exposed as just another autocratic regime that will do anything to stay in power.
Obviously, the people of Malaysia have their work cut out for them. Only they have the power to change the direction of their country by sending a clear message to the regime that they will not sit idly by while their democracy and their constitutional rights are sodomized.
From what can be discerned, many are, indeed, rising to the challenge. All across the country, ordinary citizens are now more engaged, more involved, more informed – important ingredients in any process of political change. The country is already changing and change will come. The road ahead may be long and arduous but there is a discernible resolve now that was not there before.
Anwar’s incarceration may also provide the movement for change with a powerful symbol in much the same way as Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi did for their countries. The next elections, if it is not thwarted by extensive gerrymandering, may well be a game changer.
Though the struggle is primarily a domestic one, Western democracies also have a role to play. For too long, Western democracies have been complicit in shoring up undemocratic governments for their own economic and strategic interests. In the process, they have abandoned millions of people yearning for freedom, democracy and human rights. President Obama’s refusal to meet Anwar, the Opposition Leader no less, during his visit to Malaysia last year, for example, was a disgraceful and shameful capitulation to political expediency and only emboldened the Najib Administration to continue its crackdown on dissent.
It is great that Western democracies have now spoken out against Anwar’s conviction but more is required of them if they truly believe in the great ideals upon which their own nations are premised. They must go beyond diplomatically opaque and often meaningless statements and put human rights and democracy front and centre in their dealings with the government of Malaysia. As well, Western democracies should be prepared to shun leaders who crack down on dissent and violate fundamental democratic principles. Autocrats the world over must know that it will never be business as usual while they harass, intimidate and jail their opponents at home.