By Lim Teck Ghee | TMI
With the acquittal by the High Court of the sodomy charge against Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim, a key page in the country’s political history has been turned.
Immediate winners are of course Anwar, his family, his team of lawyers and the opposition. For Anwar, it was not only exoneration of the sexual smear charges brought against him; it was also a victory for his political fortunes and that of Pakatan Rakyat, now re-energised, ahead of the coming elections.
As the clock winds down — much more slowly now as a result of this verdict — towards the end of the current term of the Barisan Nasional government, Anwar has quite rightly refrained from crowing over this unexpected verdict.
In his first comments to the press following the court decision, Anwar asked his supporters to concentrate on the larger reform agenda, and on fighting against corruption and ensuring the freedom of the media.
Tribute to a courageous and conscientious judge
This reminder that Malaysians have to focus on the larger struggle for justice and freedom is salutary. Anwar’s is only one in a string of recent political cases, the great majority of which the independence and integrity of the country’s judiciary has been tested and found wanting.
Special tribute must be paid to judge Mohamad Zabidin Mohd Diah, who must have come under tremendous pressure to return a guilty verdict in what was clearly a politically motivated trial. Instead he delivered a judicial decision based on established principles of criminal justice. His judgment was the right one. His statement that the court could not exclude the possibility of the DNA samples being compromised addressed only one of the many doubts raised against the prosecution’s case.
It was a case which relied on the accusation of one person, Saiful Bukhari Azlan, who coincidentally had met the then Deputy Prime Minister, Najib Razak, several days before the alleged incident.
In most other democratic courts of law, this meeting would have raised immediate doubts about the credibility of the accuser as well as resulted in outright dismissal of the charges, and condemnation of the prosecution and its political masters for attempting to use the courts to cripple their political opponents.
Losers in the Sodomy II case
Losers are the prime minister, the Attorney-General exercising his office as public prosecutor, and Umno. Najib’s unexplained meeting with Saiful and refusal to testify despite being served subpoenas requiring him and his wife Rosmah Mansor to appear in court should have alerted his minders that even if the judge had returned a guilty verdict, the court of public opinion — in Malaysia as well as the rest of the world — would not easily believe that the prime minister was not an interested party and had no connection at all with Saiful.
Najib’s political standing has now taken an enormous beating that no amount of spinning by the Information Minister Rais Yatim, that the verdict proves that the courts are free from political manipulation, can help salvage.
As for the Attorney-General, he must have been expecting to secure conviction and deliver his greatest triumph to his political masters. Instead he was handed a lesson in the principles of the delivery of justice by one of his colleagues in the judiciary legal service.
The prosecution can still appeal against the decision but in doing so it can only worsen the negative opinions and perception of the public at large that the Attorney-General’s Chambers has been turned into a political tool of the Barisan government, with the current Attorney-General drastically lowering the standards of his office in his partiality towards the executive.
Umno — more correctly the legacy of Mahathir’s Umno — is the biggest loser. Dr Mahathir Mohamad concocted the first sodomy charge against Anwar to prevent his deputy from taking over power but before that he had already gutted the judiciary of its integrity and independence.
Dr Mahathir’s Umno supporters have continued in a similar vein, taking the political persecution of Anwar further by using it as the lynchpin of their campaign of demonisation of Anwar and the opposition. Now that strategy has backfired badly and may be the final nail in the coffin of Barisan rule over the country.
The biggest winner
Lastly, the biggest winner of all is the thinking and writing Malaysian public. Not reported in the mainstream media and constantly ahead of the pundits and even legal analysts in their analysis of the Anwar case, Malaysians used the Internet to voice their outrage at the prosecution’s case and to call for an end to attempts to make a mockery of the justice system in the pursuit of power.
Cynical observers have argued that the judiciary is only free and fair when it suits Umno and the government, and that the verdict was only because its leaders felt that a guilty verdict would lead to a worse situation compared to discharging Anwar.
That may be true but it still is a testimony to the influence of new and vibrant voices of dissent aimed at reform and restoring a truly free and independent judiciary.
Dr Lim Teck Ghee is director, Centre for Policy Initiatives, Malaysia.