Anwar Ibrahim arrives at court in Kuala Lumpur on Jan 9. 2012 (Simon Roughneen)

Opposition supporters outside Malaysia’s High Court on Monday morning (Simon Roughneen)

In an unexpected conclusion to a two-year trial, a Malaysian court acquitted opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges that he insisted were politically motivated.

KUALA LUMPUR — Monday’s surprise acquittal of Malaysia’s opposition leader in a sodomy trial that many viewed as politically motivated eases the prospect of unrest in the multi-ethnic country, one of southeast Asia’s largest tourist draws

The potential for trouble was highlighted by three small explosions near the courthouse on Monday morning, injuring several people, while a jubilant Anwar Ibrahim mingled with a raucous, fist-pumping crowd of several thousand supporters.

Mr. Anwar, a former government insider who has been hounded by legal actions over alleged sodomy since he broke with Malaysia’s ruling party in the 1990s said, “I thank God for this great news, I am finally vindicated.”

The ruling benefits not only Anwar, who’s planning to run for prime minister in upcoming elections, but it may also help the current government burnish democratic credentials dimmed by trials like Anwar’s and the detention of other political opponents.

Anwar Ibrahim arrives at court in Kuala Lumpur Monday morning (Simon Roughneen)

A guilty verdict would have shown-up the judicial system as unfair, says Greg Lopez, who studies Malaysia at Australian National University, and would have “made a martyr” out of Anwar.

The ruling comes four months after Prime Minister Najib Razak promised to amend anti-democratic laws, including ending the requirement that media outlets must reapply each year for a new permit, something free speech advocates say leads to self-censorship.

Pressing for power

Anwar’s political coalition made serious inroads into the current government’s long-standing domination of Malaysia at the last elections, held in 2008. He told journalists today “we must focus on the next general elections and the reform agenda, we hope for an independent judiciary and free media.” The next vote is required to take place by the middle of 2013 and will likely to be called this year, according to Mr. Lopez.

Malaysia is a middle-income country with aspirations to join the ranks of the so-called first world economies, aiming for average annual incomes approaching those of OECD states by 2020.

But Anwar and supporters say Malaysia is not a functioning democracy and last July he led around 20,000 people in a rare protest in the streets in Malaysia’s largest city, Kuala Lumpur.

The rally sought changes to the electoral system, which they said was rigged in favor of the incumbent government – a coalition of Malay, Chinese, and Indian political parties known as the Barisan Nasional (National Front) that has run the country since 1973.

The police response to the peaceful rally was heavy-handed; protestors were doused with tear gas and a water cannon and more than 1,500 people were arrested. The crackdown drew worldwide attention, and Anwar, who was injured while taking part, held it up as an example of government failings.

Anwar, who previously served six years in jail on a separate sodomy conviction that was overturned in 2004, accused the government of again trying to eliminate him from politics on what he and his supporters described as another fabricated charge, this one made by a former aide in 2008.

That charge came soon after Anwar’s three-party opposition group, called the Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance), an unwieldy amalgam, took just over one third of the seats in Malaysia’s parliament after a best-ever showing in 2008 elections. That result gave the Alliance realistic hopes of eventually replacing the Front in power.

For hours before Monday’s verdict, some 2,500 opposition supporters chanted and prayed outside the court building, a mosque-like structure with a domed roof, to await what many Malaysians assumed would be a guilty verdict, given Anwar’s prior conviction and allegations of a rigged court.

Case dismissed

But the judge, Mohamad Zabidin Diah, dismissed the case based on concerns that the prosecution’s DNA evidence was tainted. After the acquittal, Anwar said that he was happy to be free, but nonetheless slammed the Malaysian judiciary as flawed, after edging his way through a throng of supporters who were chanting “reformasi,” the name of the political reform movement started by Anwar in the late 1990s.

Back them Anwar broke with the government after serving as deputy prime minister to Malaysia’s long-term leader, Mahathir Mohamad, famous for lecturing the West on the merits of “Asian values” such as social stability and respect for family.

A government statement landed in journalists’ inboxes within minutes of today’s verdict: “Malaysia has an independent judiciary and this verdict proves that the government does not hold sway over judges’ decisions,” it said.

According to Pui Yee Choong, a political researcher at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, today’s verdict will allow the incumbent government to portray itself as magnanimous in the run-up to the election. “They can claim that it has never been the case that anyone from the ruling party wanted to end Anwar’s political career,” she says.

But though Anwar and the opposition might lose some of the sympathy and protest appeal that could have come from his imprisonment, the acquittal means he can now run as an alternative to current prime minister in the upcoming elections, which just might now be fought over what substantive policy issues, such as Malaysia’s economy, according to Ibrahim Suffian, head of the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research, a Malaysian think tank.

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