KUALA LUMPUR // Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's surprising acquittal on sodomy charges is good news for both him and his opponents. It is a court-sent gift for the very government he wants to topple.
The verdict will pre-empt public outrage that a conviction would have sparked in a likely election year and it also buttresses prime minister Najib Razak's claims that he does not interfere with the judiciary and that his promises of ensuring civil liberties are serious.
After a two-year trial filled with explicit sexual allegations that captivated and polarised the country, a High Court judge took only two minutes to deliver the verdict yesterday. He ruled that the prosecution's DNA evidence was not enough to convict the 64-year-old Mr Anwar of sodomising a male former aide who at the time was 23.
The judgment is "a win-win situation" for both sides, said James Chin, a political science lecturer at Monash University in Malaysia. "It has removed a hot spot for the government. Anwar is also free to concentrate on the elections."
The verdict also will calm foreign investors who were spooked by the possibility of political turmoil had Mr Anwar been jailed ahead of general elections expected sometime this year. Many Malaysians also voiced relief.
"I hope this brings closure to the scandal. Everyone I know is sick and tired of this case. It hasn't been healthy for our country to be obsessed about this," said Lim Hon Choong, a project manager for a consumer goods company.
Mr Anwar has long maintained that the charges were trumped up and that he was framed by Mr Najib's long-ruling coalition to prevent his opposition alliance from coming to power, not an impossible scenario.
Mr Anwar previously was imprisoned for six years after being ousted as deputy prime minister in 1998 on charges of sodomising his former family driver and abusing his power. Sodomy, even consensual, is illegal in Muslim-majority Malaysia, but the law against it is seldom enforced.
Mr Anwar was freed in 2004 after Malaysia's top court quashed the sodomy conviction.
Yesterday, Judge Mohamad Zabidin Diah said he "could not with 100 per cent certainty exclude the possibility that the [DNA] sample is not compromised.
"The court is always reluctant to convict on sexual offences without corroborative evidence," he said.
Chief prosecutor Yusof Zainal Abiden said he had not decided whether to appeal.
A government lawmaker, Abdul Rahman Dahlan, urged prosecutors not to appeal, warning that prolonging the case would further divide the country. He said he expects Mr Najib's popularity to rise. Mr Najib has won some praise for repealing laws that allowed indefinite detention without trial and has tried to build bridges with the country's minority Indians and Chinese.
Within 20 minutes of the verdict, the government issued a statement trumpeting Mr Anwar's acquittal as a demonstration of the judiciary's independence.
Information Minister Rais Yatim said in the statement that the acquittal "proves that the government does not hold sway over judges' decisions."
But Mr Anwar said he saw it as just another government strategy to avoid having a mess on its hands, similar to the one after his 2000 conviction, which attracted widespread international opprobrium.
There was international pressure on the government this time too, Mr Anwar said. "They can ill-afford another case of Anwar being sent to prison ... To assume the judiciary is independent is a bit far-fetched," Mr Anwar told the Associated Press.
Still, he said he was "pleasantly shocked" by the verdict, which upended his worst-case scenario of a 20-year prison sentence.
After his release in 2004, Mr Anwar led a three-party opposition alliance to unprecedented gains in 2008 elections, but his future was jeopardised months later when Saiful Bukhari Azlan, a 26-year-old former aide, accused Mr Anwar of forcing him to have sex in an apartment.
Government supporters insisted that the allegations proved that Mr Anwar was morally unfit to lead. The case hinged mainly on Mr Saiful's testimony and semen samples found on his body that investigators said matched Mr Anwar's DNA. The defence insisted Mr Saiful's claims were inconsistent and that the DNA samples were mishandled.
Thousands of opposition supporters outside the court building cheered the news. Inside, Mr Anwar's wife and children wept and hugged him.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of New York-based Human Rights Watch's Asian division, said Mr Anwar should never have been charged in the first place, adding that the case had been "politically motivated and plagued with irregularities."
Mr Saiful did not attend the hearing, but wrote on Twitter that he respected the decision and would "remain calm, continue praying and be patient." But "I will not admit defeat," he wrote.
Mr Anwar planned to travel to India and Turkey this week for speaking engagements before returning for his alliance's national congress, in which the opposition will plan its strategies for elections widely expected within months.
The opposition now has more than one-third of Parliament's seats and hopes to win power by pledging to curb graft, racial discrimination and restrictions on civil liberties.
Mr Najib has announced high-profile measures recently to tackle those problems in a bid to ensure the political survival of his National Front coalition, which has governed since 1957.