Anwar Ibrahim, the charismatic leader of Malaysia’s Pakatan Rakyat opposition alliance, is facing five years in jail. Ibrahim has been found guilty of sodomy, which is considered a criminal act in Malaysia. The court overturned an earlier ruling which had overturned an even earlier ruling and freed Anwar from jail. For now, Anwar will remain out on bail but if his appeal to Malaysia’s highest court fails, he could find himself locked behind jail for another five years.
Sodomy charges are rarely pursued, so most view the case as purely political. Anwar is the most serious challenger to Barisan Nasional’s long rule in Malaysia. Indeed, his Pakatan Rakyat coalition actually managed to secure the popular vote in Malaysia’s last election, narrowly beating out Barisan Nasional. Despite this, the coalition did not take control of the country’s parliament as districts in the country are highly gerrymandered to favor rural areas.
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The ruling comes ahead of the state elections in Selangor this month. Anwar had planned to compete in said election, stepping aside from his position in the national parliament. Given Anwar’s popularity and power base in the state, he would almost certainly win the election and assume the post of Chief of the state of Selangor.
Complicated legal case surrounding Anwar
Initially, Anwar was a member of Barisan Nasional and indeed had risen all the way to the position of Deputy Prime Minister. He quickly found himself in conflict with Prime Minister Mahathir, however, and in 1999 he was jailed on “abuse of corruption” charges. His jail sentence led to huge street protests and jump-started the opposition movement within Malaysia.
In 2000, Anwar was found guilty of his first set of sodomy charges with his wife’s driver and was sentenced to jail. In 2004, however, the Supreme Court overturned this conviction and freed him. Immediately after, Anwar emerged as a leader of the opposition movement and began to challenge Barisan Nasional for power.
In 2008 Anwar was charged for sodomy a second time. In 2012, however, Anwar was acquitted by the high court but the government appealed the decision. Now, the courts have overruled the earlier acquittal and the legal case will be heard in the Supreme Court.
Malaysia could face mass protests if Anwar Jailed
Anwar has warned that Prime Minister Najib and his ruling coalition will face the “wrath of the people” if he is once again locked up. While Anwar did not elaborate on what that meant, Pakatan Rakyat and its allies have been able to draw tens of thousands of people to rallies and protests.
Protests rocked the country the last time Anwar was jailed, and his power has only grown in the years since. Indeed, after Pakatan Rakyat failed to seize parliament in the last election cycle, thousands took to the streets and tensions rose to their highest point since the 1969 race riots.
If Anwar is indeed jailed, protests could erupt in the country. Few will doubt that the jail term will be anything but politically motivated and tensions have already been high following elections that many in the Opposition feel were rigged.
Anwar may now be the most powerful single person in the country. Certainly he is one of the most popular and widely supported. Should he be jailed, protests this time round could potentially cripple the country or plunge it into chaos as his supporters take to the street.
The loss of Anwar would be a serious blow to the Opposition, but Barisan Nasional has been seeing its support evaporate amid rising living costs and a perceived inability to fight the corruption and graft that now plagues both the government and the ruling coalition. Irregardless of whether or not Anwar is able to run in the next national elections, Barisan Nasional may find itself facing an uphill battle.