(New York) – On the first anniversary of Anwar Ibrahim’s incarceration on politically motivated charges, the Malaysian government should unconditionally release the former deputy prime minister and political opposition leader, Human Rights Watch said today. The Malaysian government should also ensure that Anwar can access appropriate medical services while imprisoned and facilitate necessary overseas travel to treat the serious ailments he reportedly suffers from in prison.
“Malaysia’s conviction of Anwar Ibrahim was politically motivated, and he’s already suffered through a year in prison from this travesty of justice,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Every day that Anwar is behind bars, confidence in the Malaysian justice system further erodes. The government should release Anwar and repeal the country’s abusive and archaic sodomy laws.”
On February 10, 2015, Malaysia’s Federal Court upheld a Court of Appeal verdict that Anwar was guilty of sodomy under the Malaysian penal code. Anwar was taken into custody and immediately began serving a five-year prison term. A request for a pardon was turned down in March 2015. An appeal of that denial has yet to be decided.
In November 2015, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that Anwar’s imprisonment violated prohibitions on torture, or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. Specifically, the Working Group found that an “adequate remedy would be to release Mr. Ibrahim immediately, and ensure that his political rights that were removed based on his arbitrary detention be reinstated.”
Police arrested Anwar on July 16, 2008, based on a complaint from Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan, a political aide, that Anwar had consensual sex with him. The original trial was plagued with serious fair trial concerns, including the prosecutors’ unwillingness to provide defense lawyers with access to medical and other evidence against their client. Nevertheless, the High Court acquitted Anwar on January 9, 2012, ruling that DNA samples that were central to the prosecution’s case had not been handled or maintained properly and thus were possibly contaminated. The High Court judge said the only other major evidence was the alleged victim’s statements, which were uncorroborated.
The government appealed and on March 7, 2014, the Court of Appeal overturned the acquittal and sentenced Anwar to five years in prison. The appeal court hearing, originally scheduled for April, was hurriedly moved to March 6-7. The verdict and sentencing hearings were conducted on the same day despite defense counsel requests that they be given more time, including provision of medical evidence. The sentencing hearing was conducted after a one-hour recess on a day of proceedings that had lasted until 5 p.m.
Anwar’s conviction disqualified him from running for a state assembly seat in Selangor on March 23. Had he been permitted to run and won the seat, he would have been eligible to seek the position of chief minister of Selangor state, a development strongly opposed by the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.
Anwar’s five-year sentence also carried a subsequent five-year ban on running for office after being released from prison under Malaysia’s elections law, which imposes a ban on anyone who is imprisoned for more than one year – effectively ending his elected political career. Soon after Anwar’s imprisonment, the multi-party Pakatan Rakyat opposition alliance he had led fractured.
“Anwar’s conviction and imprisonment removed a major political threat to the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak,” Robertson said. “The conviction effectively removed a charismatic opposition leader, already in his late sixties, from politics for a minimum of ten years.”
According to his lawyers, Anwar suffers from serious health problems, including a major rotator cuff injury with torn muscles and tendons, which has not received proper treatment in prison. The lawyers and Anwar’s family raised health concerns for Anwar if he were to have the condition treated in an operation in Malaysia, and have tried to persuade the government to let him travel overseas for treatment. They have also sought guarantees that if Anwar did depart the country, the government would permit him to return and not seek to permanently exile him.
The anniversary of Anwar’s imprisonment comes five days before United States President Barack Obama is set to host a major summit with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the US. The invitation of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is also embroiled in a major corruption scandal involving the deposit of hundreds of millions of dollars in his personal bank account, has provoked outrage within civil society in Malaysia.
“President Obama should not conduct business as usual at the US-ASEAN summit with Prime Minister Najib,” said Robertson. “It would be a betrayal of the people of Malaysia if Obama does not publicly call for Anwar’s release, and the dismissal of politically motivated charges for sedition and other crimes that so many activists in Malaysia face today.”