Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was acquitted Monday morning in Kuala Lumpur on sodomy charges — the second time he has faced such charges in two decades. The decision was frankly a surprise to nearly everyone who follows Malaysia, and to most Malaysian opposition politicians; nearly all expected that Anwar would be sent to jail again, so as clear the way for the current government’s re-election campaign (Several Malaysian opinion leaders I spoke with just before the verdict were convinced it would go against Anwar). Shockingly, it took the judge only two minutes to deliver the verdict.
What does this mean? For one, it could mean that Malaysia’s courts, sensing that the government does not have the chokehold over power it once did, are feeling the political winds, as has happened to some extent in Thailand where courts have suddenly become more sympathetic to Thaksin Shinawatra’s ex-wife. Or it could mean that the Najib government decided that Anwar’s case, though it seemed to cripple the opposition leader, was actually working against the government by undermining the image of reform it was trying to present to the world, to investors, and to Malaysia’s youth. So, the government may have actually pushed the judiciary to end the case quietly. Only a few minutes after the decision Malaysia’s Information Ministry was trumpeting the acquittal as proof of Malaysia’s political openness.
Or, in the best-case scenario, the judges didn’t bend to any political winds at all. It could mean that the reforms that the Najib government has pushed for – greater openness, an end to the Internal Security Act, and some degree of separation of powers –are actually being internalized and making a difference. Perhaps the judge made a decision simply on the merits of the case, which were blatantly ridiculous and never would even have come to trial in a completely free system.