Police in Malaysia have detained opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on charges of sodomy, brought against him by a former male aide. The former deputy prime minister has denied the allegations, saying they are politically motivated. The opposition claims the government promised not to arrest him when the charges were lodged last month but this promise has apparently been broken. Anwar spent six years in jail between 1998 and 2004 on similar charges.
Malaysia's opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim
Anwar is accused of sodomising a former male assistant, an illegal act in Malaysia, which can lead to a sentence of up to 20 years imprisonment.
The opposition leader was arrested on Wednesday near his residence. Anwar’s supporters are shocked by the arrest, which they say is politically motivated.
Tian Chua is the information chief of Anwar’s Keadilan, or National Justice Party: “Until now we have not been given a proper justification by the police for why he was arrested. This action is uncalled for and is intended to create fear and anger not only to Anwar’s family but to the general public as well.”
Attempt to thwart opposition
The sodomy complaint was filed against Anwar last month. Immediately, he took refuge in the Turkish embassy, saying he feared for his life. He only left the embassy once he had received assurances for his safety. He has persistently denied the allegations and claims the charges are aimed at derailing his political career.
Tian Chua also sees them as an attempt to thwart the opposition in Malaysia saying he has been prevented from appearing in any public debates.
However, “when he has appeared he has eloquently presented his argument. I think the government is using his arrest to check these actions and to me this is a prelude for a possible mass crackdown on Anwar as well as on the democratic movement, which is gaining strength in the Malaysian political scene.”
Pressure on ruling coalition
On March 8 this year, Anwar led the weak opposition alliance to unprecedented gains in the general elections over the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition that has dominated Malaysian politics for over five decades. The opposition now controls five states and one-third of the seats in parliament.
Ever since, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has been under tremendous pressure, also from within his coalition, to step down. Ibrahim Suffian, the director of the Merdeka Center, an independent research institute near Kuala Lumpur thinks that if the charges against Anwar were proven to be wrong then it would certainly give him a major political edge.
“Malaysia is ethnically segmented and the Malay electorate right now is split,” he explained. “If the charges against Anwar are not proven, that may push the indigenous Malay to support him instead and that may cause greater trouble for the ruling coalition.”
Anwar was already arrested on similar charges in 1998 -- leading to widespread protests across the country. The charges were overturned by the Supreme Court and he was released in 2004. Many fear the current arrest could trigger more protests.
The latest political developments are also expected to cause more uncertainty in the financial markets, which have already seen a decline in investment by comparison to earlier this year. Stock markets fell by 0.7 percent to a 16-month low on Wednesday.