Last edited: March 08, 2005

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.

The 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.

  • Kumala is an intern at The Advocate.

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