(New York) - The Malaysian government should immediately drop politically motivated criminal charges against opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Human Rights Watch said today. On July 15, 2009, the Kuala Lumpur High Court will hear Anwar's application to strike out a sodomy charge against him, and an ongoing defense request for evidence it says is crucial to properly prepare for trial.
This is the second time Anwar has been charged with sodomy. He spent six years in prison before his previous conviction for sodomy was overturned in 2004.
Human Rights Watch said the current charge appears politically motivated and lacks credibility.
The government has failed to disclose key evidence to the defense, hastily sought to pass a DNA statute that aids the prosecution, and put Anwar at a disadvantage by unnecessarily moving the trial to the high court. In addition, the government allowed the attorney general, who is under investigation for misconduct in Anwar's previous trial, to be involved in the current case.
"This trial is a bald-faced attempt to permanently remove an opposition leader from Malaysian politics," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government is trying to manipulate the justice system for political purposes."
The current charge against Anwar relates to allegations that on June 26, 2008, he had sexual relations with Mohd Saiful Bukhari bin Azlan, a 23-year-old male former volunteer aide to Anwar. Although initially filed as a non-consensual offense, prosecutors later changed the charge to consensual sodomy, though Saiful has never been charged. A conviction would force Anwar to vacate his seat in Parliament and effectively bar him from contesting in the next general election, expected before 2012.
Anwar's July 15 court application to drop the sodomy charge rests on the basis of two medical reports. Three specialists from the public Kuala Lumpur Hospital endorsed a July 13, 2008 medical report regarding the complainant that found "no conclusive clinical findings suggestive of penetration to the anus and no significant defensive wound on the body of the patient." A doctor at the private Pusrawi Hospital who examined Saiful on June 28, 2008, two days after the alleged incident, reported the anus as "normal." The doctor later left Malaysia to escape what he said was persistent pressure to alter his report.
In addition, the defense will reiterate its January 2009 request for at least 10 documents it asserts are necessary for it to properly prepare Anwar's defense at trial. They include the original closed-circuit television recordings from the alleged crime scene, original specimens from which DNA samples were allegedly obtained, chemist's notes, witness statements including the complainant's, and medical reports. To date, the Public Prosecutor's office has denied it is withholding any documents it is mandated to share under the Malaysian Criminal Procedure Code.
"Providing the defendant with evidence crucial for preparing his defense is a basic requirement of a fair trial," said Pearson. "The prosecution's withholding of key evidence is a red flag of political shenanigans."
Concerns about a fair trial were heightened on July 1 after the court dismissed Anwar's appeal challenging Attorney General Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patail's decision to move the trial to the High Court from the Sessions Court where it originated. Transfer to a high court reduces opportunities for a defense appeal to higher courts should Anwar be found guilty. Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi then stated publicly in July 2008 that Abdul Gani, who is also public prosecutor, would have no part in Anwar's trial as he is under investigation by the Anti-Corruption Commission for allegedly falsifying evidence to protect those involved in an assault on Anwar in 1998 while he was in police custody during the earlier sodomy trial.
Sessions Court Judge Komathy Suppiah ruled in March that, "it is evident that any involvement by the AG [Gani] in this case would seriously undermine public confidence in the administration of criminal justice." The High Court overruled Judge Komathy's decision, stating that Gani was only acting administratively in approving the transfer and thus was not involved in the new trial.
DNA issues are also contentious in the case. On June 23, 2009, the lower house of Parliament quickly passed the Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) Identification Act, which will go into effect after Senate and Royal assent. It would allow police to take DNA samples from criminal suspects and to use those samples to build a DNA databank. Anwar has repeatedly refused to submit DNA samples in this case on the grounds that current law does not require it and because of his reasonable concern for evidence tampering as happened in his 1998 trial.
The proposed DNA law includes a provision stating that "any existing DNA profile and any information in relation thereto kept and maintained by the Chemistry Department of Malaysia or Royal Malaysia Police, immediately before coming into operation of this Act shall ... form part of the DNA Databank established under this Act." Circumventing Anwar's refusal to provide a new DNA sample, this would permit the manipulated samples from his previous trial to be used as evidence and manipulated again during the upcoming trial.
Serious concerns about fairness and impartial administration of justice, combined with heavy-handed police tactics at the time of Anwar's arrest and intimidation of witnesses, are reminiscent of Anwar's earlier, deeply marred sodomy trial, Human Rights Watch said. Given these concerns, Human Rights Watch renewed its call for the charge against Anwar to be dropped immediately.
"The Malaysian government should stop using the courts to pursue political vendettas," said Pearson. "Unless it drops these dubious charges against Anwar, it risks giving its reputation another black eye."
Sodomy ("committing carnal intercourse against the order of nature"), even when consensual, is punishable in Malaysia under Section 377B of the Penal Code by up to 20 years in prison and whipping. Human Rights Watch urges the Malaysian authorities to uphold international human rights standards by decriminalizing consensual homosexual conduct and replacing Section 377A with a gender-neutral rape law.