Malaysia’s Long Sodomy Battle
Gay sex between men remains illegal and can be harshly
punished in this predominantly Muslim nation, but one victory was achieved
this month: The sodomy conviction of former deputy prime minister Anwar
Ibrahim was overturned, and he was released from prison after six years.
Advocate, September 20, 2004
By Kevin Kumala
Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister of
Malaysia, was wheeled out of court this month. After spending nearly six
grueling years in prison, the sodomy charges against him were thrown out by
Malaysia’s highest court on September 2—six years to the day after being
fired from his post—and the former protégé of retired prime minister
Mahathir Mohamad is finally a free man.
Anwar’s political fall from grace occurred during the
1997–98 Asian financial crisis. Being the charismatic and ambitious deputy
to the then-quasi-authoritarian prime minister, Anwar put himself in a
position of stark conflict with his mentor. As Anwar started to gain
widespread support among the Malaysian public for his reformist views,
Mahathir started to view Anwar’s popularity as a threat to his authority and
the status quo. The prime minister decided to sack him on September 2, 1998,
alleging corruption, among other things; within three weeks Anwar was arrested
and charged with four counts of corruption, just after leading protests
against Mahathir. In 1999, Anwar was formally accused of homosexual sodomy
with his own wife’s driver. Consensual or not, it was a serious allegation
in the predominantly Muslim nation.
In 1999 he was sentenced to a six-year term for the
corruption conviction, and he received a nine-year term for sodomy in 2000.
The sentences were to be served consecutively.
Anwar emerged from prison with a chronic back
injury—which, he has always claimed, was the result of police beatings
endured during his incarceration. From day one he has insisted that the sodomy
and corruption charges leveled against him were politically motivated. In the
sodomy case, the lead prosecution witness—Azizan Abu Bakar, who was the
driver of the Anwar family—had repeatedly changed the dates when the offense
allegedly took place, a fact the high court cited in its decision to overturn
the conviction. During his trial, Anwar testified that his accuser was being
bribed by government officials to fabricate the sodomy story.
Anwar’s sodomy conviction—related to the corruption
conviction for which he has already served his sentence—was challenged on
appeal in order to clear his name and enable him to reenter politics. However,
the Malaysian high court ruled September 15 that his conviction still stands
and that any new revelations regarding the sodomy case are irrelevant and
cannot be entered into evidence. Anwar will therefore not be able to run for
any elected office for the next five years. As a free citizen he has decided
to flee his country for Germany and seek medical treatment for his back. He
has also publicly announced that he will use this period to evaluate the
country’s situation and strategize for his eventual comeback into
Malaysia’s political arena.
Malaysia’s conservative Islamic influence has long
etched into law certain social and religious mores for the population. One is
the antisodomy law, similar to the laws that Texas and a handful of other U.S.
states still had on the books prior to the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision
Lawrence v. Texas. These archaic and intolerant laws are still championed and
enforced by conservatives in many parts of the world today.
Under such oppressive conditions, there is no guarantee
that political conflict will not again reach the low point of baseless
accusations against a public figure’s personal life. Yet even if the facts
surrounding the Malaysian sodomy case were indeed accurate, was it legally
justified to imprison a gay or bisexual man simply for his sexual orientation?
Apparently—in places like Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and
Malaysia—it still is.
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