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Malaysia: Opposition Leader Loses Final Appeal Against Sodomy Conviction

(Feb. 12, 2015) On February 10, 2015, a five-member panel of the Federal Court of Malaysia (Malaysia’s highest court) declined to overturn the conviction and five-year sentence imposed by the Court of Appeal in the criminal case of Anwar Ibrahim, who was charged with sodomizing a former aide in 2008. (Press Summary, Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim v Public Prosecutor, Criminal Appeal No. 05-47-03/2014(W) (Federal Court, Feb. 10, 2015).) Anwar is a long-time politician who served as Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia from 1993 to 1998 and in more recent years has been a prominent leader of the alliance of opposition parties in Malaysia. The current ruling party, United Malays National Organisation (UNMO), has dominated Malaysian politics since the country became independent in 1957. (Profile: Anwar Ibrahim, BBC News (Feb. 10, 2015).)

Anwar was acquitted of the sodomy charge by the High Court in January 2012 on the grounds that the relevant DNA samples could have been compromised. However, this decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal in April 2014, when he was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. (Public Prosecutor v Dato’ Seri Anwar Bin Ibrahim, Criminal Appeal No. W-05-19-01/2012 (Judgment of the Court of Appeal, Apr. 11, 2014).) Anwar had previously sought the dismissal of the charges against him in various proceedings. (Constance Johnson, Malaysia: Court Rejects Appeal of Case Involving Sodomy Charge Against Opposition Leader, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (Sept. 23, 2010).)

Previous Convictions

This is the second conviction of Anwar for sodomy. He was found guilty by the High Court in August 2000 of sodomizing his family driver in 1994 and was sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment. He had previously, in April 1998, been convicted of corruption and sentenced to a term of six years’ imprisonment. In late 2004, the Federal Court overturned the sodomy conviction, and Anwar was released from prison. (Anwar Loses Sodomy II Appeal, BERNAMA (Feb. 10, 2015).)

The Sodomy Charge

Anwar was charged with sodomy under section 377B of the Malaysian Penal Code, which states, “[w]hoever voluntarily commits carnal intercourse against the order of nature shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to twenty years, and shall also be liable to whipping.” (Penal Code (Act 574), s 377B (as at Jan. 1, 2015), Attorney General’s Chambers of Malaysia website.) According to research by the Women’s Candidacy Initiative, this section has only been invoked seven times since 1938. Four of those charges related to Anwar. (Claire Brownwell, Rethinking Malaysia’s Sodomy Laws, Malaysian Bar website (July 26, 2009).)

Reactions to the Decision

Anwar and his supporters have claimed that the charges against him were politically motivated. Following the reading of the decision by Federal Court Judge Arifin Zakat, Anwar addressed the panel from the dock, saying, “[y]ou have become partners in crime in the murder of judicial independence.” (Malaysia’s High Court Upholds Anwar Ibrahim Sodomy Conviction, AL JAZEERA AMERICA (last updated Feb. 10, 2015).) The judges left the courtroom while Anwar continued to speak. He went on to state that “I maintain my innocence. This to me is a fabrication coming from a political conspiracy to stop my political career.” (Id.)

The decision of the Federal Court was decried by international organizations and foreign governments. Amnesty International strongly condemned the Court’s decision, with the organization’s Asia Pacific Director saying “[t]his is a deplorable judgment, and just the latest chapter in the Malaysian authorities’ relentless attempts to silence government critics. The ‘sodomy’ charges against Anwar Ibrahim have always been politically motivated, and he should be released immediately.” (Malaysia: Anwar Verdict Will Have Chilling Effect on Freedom of Expression, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL (Feb. 10, 2015).)

Similarly, Human Rights Watch called for section 377B of the Penal Code to be repealed and for Anwar to be exonerated, stating, “[t]he conviction of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim after seven years of politically motivated proceedings under an abusive and archaic law is a major setback for human rights in Malaysia.” (Malaysia: Anwar’s Conviction Sets Back Rights, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH (Feb. 10, 2015).)

The United States government, in a statement by National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan, said that it is “deeply disappointed” with the conviction of Anwar and that the “decision to prosecute Mr. Anwar and the conduct of his trial have raised a number of serious concerns about rule of law and the fairness of the judicial system in Malaysia.” (Press Release, The White House, Statement by NSC Spokesperson Bernadette Meehan on Conviction of Malaysian Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim (Feb. 10, 2015).)

Statement of the Malaysian Government on the Decision

Following the verdict, the Malaysian government released a statement:

The judges will have reached their verdict only after considering all the evidence in a balanced and objective manner. Malaysia has an independent judiciary, and there have been many rulings against senior government figures.

The police report against Anwar Ibrahim was brought by a private individual – Anwar’s employee and personal assistant – not by the government. As the victim of a serious sexual assault, he had every right to have his case heard in court.

In this case, exhaustive and comprehensive due process has been followed over many years. That process is now complete, and we call on all parties involved to respect the legal process and the judgment. (Malaysian Government Statement on Conviction of Anwar Ibrahim, BERNAMA (Feb. 10, 2015).)