Ever since Anwar Ibrahim was sacked as Deputy Prime Minister in 1998, the government has continuously misused state institutions especially the police, the Attorney-General’s Chambers and the judiciary to persecute him on what were clearly politically motivated and trumped up charges. Anwar was beaten to within an inch of his life by then Inspector-General of Police Rahim Noor while handcuffed and blindfolded and after a series of sham trials that were universally condemned, he ultimately spent six years in jail.
With Anwar once again poised to challenge and reshape the dynamics of opposition politics by contesting in the Kajang by-election and in all likelihood be appointed as Selangor Menteri Besar, something had to give – and the government once again called upon the services of the AG’s Chambers and judiciary to eliminate Anwar.
Although not expecting a fair trial, the skulduggery and lightning speed involved to bring forward and fully hear the AG’s Chambers appeal against Anwar’s acquittal, having him convicted and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in order to disqualify him from contesting in the by-election was breathtaking and represented a new abysmal low for the judiciary.
To describe the judiciary as not independent is a serious understatement. In such cases, these judges actively collaborate with the authorities and deliver perverse judgments on cue. It is just a matter of time before our judiciary, deservedly mocked, reaches the farcical level of summary trials currently seen in Egypt in cases against the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Court of Appeal judges involved, Balia Yusof, Aziah Ali and Mohd Zawawi Salleh surely must be remembered as being responsible for one of the worst miscarriages of justice in recent memory. Their names will live in infamy together with other infamous judges like Augustine Paul and Arifin Jaka who similarly perverted the law in order to convict Anwar on false charges.
The hardliners in the government clearly think that the overwhelming misuse of state institutions is the answer even though such actions are preposterously self-defeating. There has been a stream of criticism both inside Malaysia and abroad including from the US, EU, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Inter-Parliamentary Union and numerous other human rights and lawyers’ organisations. Many are ridiculing a legal system that allows for a travesty of justice on this scale to take place, which lacked basic standards of fair trial and even involved Shafee Abdullah, prominent UMNO lawyer and legal adviser to Mahathir Mohamad and Najib Razak, to prosecute Anwar.
But coming down hard on Anwar and many other opposition leaders, members of Parliament, student leaders and dissidents on spurious sedition and peaceful assembly charges among others, makes Najib Razak look more repressive than the modern and democrat leader that his spinners want to portray. It also adds to the perception that Anwar and the opposition are clear victims, despite the fact that Barisan Nasional still enjoys almost half of the electorate’s support.
Given that the judiciary will at some point be called again to adjudicate on significant matters between the government and the opposition including on electoral fraud, gerrymandering and other unlawful practices, fundamental freedoms and transition of government at state or federal level, anything that undermines its independence will cast a long shadow over these processes.
Anwar’s verdict comes at a crucial moment in Malaysia’s muddled transition from authoritarian rule with nominal democracy and periodic elections to what many still hope, despite the troubling signs, a greater democracy with genuine free and fair elections.
The verdict is not just about Anwar or the opposition’s political ambition. By convicting Anwar in a ludicrous trial that broke every known fair trial standards, it represents the ugly truth of Barisan Nasional, of desperation to hold on to power come what may, regardless of the damage it may do to Malaysia.
It is therefore all the more imperative to reject Anwar’s verdict and work towards reclaiming Malaysia’s democratic future without Barisan Nasional at the helm.
Eric Paulsen is the Executive Director of Lawyers for Liberty. Follow us on Twitter @lawyers4liberty