Several hundred demonstrators marched through the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur yesterday (Saturday) and called for the release of the jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. They also demanded an independent judiciary and an end to the 57-year rule of UMNO (the United Malays National Organisation).
The protest was organised by youth leaders and was attended by Anwar’s eldest daughter, Nurul Izzah, who is a vice-president of the Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Pact) coalition and MP for Lembah Pantai.
On Tuesday, the federal court upheld a ruling by the Court of Appeal last year, which found Anwar guilty of sodomising his former aide Saiful Bukhari Azlan in 2008, and sentenced the former deputy prime minister to five years in prison.
The verdict has been heavily criticised both locally and internationally. Amnesty International said the decision to jail Anwar was an oppressive ruling that would have a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression in Malaysia.
Anwar (pictured left) says the case against him was fabricated by his political enemies. He has previously spent two years in political detention and six years in prison after an earlier conviction on corruption and sodomy charges.
Nurul Izzah said that she celebrated the fact that young Malaysians had come together and independently organised yesterday’s protest. The current battle, she said, went beyond the campaign for the release of her father. She called on young people to keep on with the reform agenda.
“It’s the country that’s at stake; it’s the future that’s at stake. We’re talking about a long struggle; we are talking about worsening economic conditions; support has to be galvanised until the next elections.”
Nurul Izzah said Pakatan Rakyat and the people would not stop until they drove Barisan Nasional out of power. The prime minister, Najib Razak, would be sorry, she said, as the people would not give up even if all opposition leaders were jailed.
She said that, in addition to the “March to Freedom” campaign, several other avenues were now being explored, including a possible petition directly to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (supreme head of state) of Malaysia, Tuanku Abdul Halim. Lawyers were also examining the grounds for a judicial review, and the possibilities for a civil action against those she described as “the conspirators”.
She said her father was in pain and thin, but in high spirits. Anwar is fasting as he has done during his previous time in prison.
Nurul Izzah told the crowd outside the SOGO shopping centre in KL: “We won’t allow you to let us feel any kind of despair because, however many Malaysians you throw in jail, it does not make our struggles any less important, any less true; and we will never surrender.”
People’s Justice Party (PKR) youth leader Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad said: “We are headed to the dogs if we do not change the country.”
Yesterday’s protest was raucous, but peaceful, with music and chants of “Bebaskan Anwar” (Free Anwar), “Bebas kehakiman” (Free the judicial system), “Hidup rakyat” (Long live the people), and “Lawan tetap lawan” (We will keep on fighting).
Youth leaders have called for demonstrators to gather in Kuala Lumpur for a protest rally every Saturday afternoon.
There was a police presence at yesterday’s demonstration, but it was low-key and there was no attempt to break up the protest.
There are nightly vigils outside the Sungai Buloh prison where Anwar is being held, and politicians are now focused on who will now lead the Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Pact) coalition, and who will contest the Permatang Pauh parliamentary seat that Anwar will shortly be disqualified from holding. (Under Malaysia’s constitution, the disqualification takes effect 14 days after conviction.)
Wave of criticism continues
There has been strong criticism of the chief prosecutor in the case, Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, over comments he has made since the federal court ruling.
In an interview with the pro-government newspaper, the New Straits Times, Shafee accused Anwar of hiding behind a skirt when he chose not to take the stand to be cross-examined.
Shafee said he was “satisfied” that Anwar had been found guilty.
The report quoted Shafee as saying that if Anwar had taken the stand, the torrent of questions would have been so unrelenting that he would have been cut to pieces.
Former Bar Council president Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan said it was unprecedented for a deputy public prosecutor to attack an accused person after a court delivered its verdict.
A senior Australian advocate, Mark Trowell QC, who observed the federal court proceedings on behalf of Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union, the international organisation LAWASIA, and the Law Council of Australia, has criticised the guilty verdict, saying it was unconvincing and lacked a detailed analysis of the facts. He said the judges rejected or ignored evidence that raised serious doubts about the reliability of so-called independent evidence and the credibility of the complainant.
Trowell said the court’s acceptance of Saiful’s testimony was superficial, and he pointed to the affair the complainant had had with a member of the prosecution team.
He said the court ignored Saiful’s meeting with Najib and a senior police officer just days before the alleged offence, which, he said, “raised the prospect of collusion against Anwar”.
Trowell, who has written a book on the case called “Sodomy II”, said Australian forensic experts David Wells and Brian McDonald had raised serious concerns about the DNA evidence used in the trial.
He says the numerous conflicts and contradictions in the case should have been enough to raise sufficient doubt and his view is that, “if the court had proper regard to the facts and the law”, Anwar should never have been convicted.
An opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week, entitled “Malaysia’s Anwar Shame”, stated that the federal court’s ruling represented a Pyrrhic victory for the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which is the dominant party in the BN coalition.
“The country’s ruling party finally stopped the charismatic opposition leader’s bid to become Prime Minister. In the process it has damaged the country’s reputation as well as the fabric of society, and perhaps sealed its own fate at the next election,” the article said.
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