Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, twice imprisoned on politically motivated sodomy and corruption charges, walked free from prison today with a full pardon. It was a day for celebration – for his family, his supporters, and for long-suppressed advocates of human rights in Malaysia.
It was also, perhaps, a day that will mark a new beginning for the rule of law in that country.
The release of Anwar, a former deputy prime minister and head of the opposition People’s Justice Party until his imprisonment, is the first tangible result of the unexpected election victory last week of a coalition that saw Ibrahim’s party align with Mahathir Mohamad, the 92-year-old former prime minister who first imprisoned him in 1999. Brought together by a determination to oust recent Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has been accused of large-scale corruption and has overseen serious repression of freedom of speech, assembly and the media in an effort to maintain political control, their Pakatan Harapan coalition ran on a reform platform.
With its first promise – to free Anwar – fulfilled, the coalition should make good on the rest of its promises. The coalition committed to abolishing the many repressive laws that have been used to arrest activists, journalists, opposition politicians, and ordinary citizens for criticizing the government or engaging in peaceful protest. Quick fulfillment of that pledge would send a strong signal that the new government, now headed by Mahathir, represents a true break from the abusive policies of the past.
There is much to be done for the coalition to make its human rights pledges a reality. It won’t be easy. The release of Anwar, who will be able to celebrate Ramadan with his family for the first time since 2014, is a hopeful first step.