By Riddhi Shah
A few weeks ago, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, was exonerated of sodomy charges by the country’s Supreme Court.
In a Muslim-majority country still largely governed by colonial-era laws, sodomy – even between consenting adults – is an offense punishable by a 20-year jail sentence and whipping with a rattan cane.
Sixty-four-year-old Ibrahim is married and has six children. In 2008, he was accused of having sex with a 23-year-old former aide. But much through the two-year trial, Ibrahim maintained that the charge was a political frame-up to prevent his party from winning the upcoming national election.
Anwar is seen as the primary force keeping together the three ideologically different parties that form the country’s main opposition. After Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s popularity plummeted on the back of corruption charges and economic trouble, Ibrahim’s opposition alliance became a credible force in national politics – and is tipped to perhaps even win the 2013 elections. Despite his political roots in radical Islam (as a student leader he defaced English language signs at the University of Malaya) Ibrahim has fashioned himself as the face of liberal democracy. He promises to usher in civil and political reform if he wins the elections.
The prosecution’s case mainly rested on the former aide’s testimony and semen samples on the aide’s body that were said to belong to Ibrahim. On January 9, 2012, Judge Zabidin Mohamed Diah found Anwar not guilty of sodomy on the basis that the DNA evidence submitted by the prosecution was unreliable.
Reacting to the verdict, Ibrahim said, “I have been vindicated. To be honest, I am a little surprised.”
The trial was Ibrahim’s second since his fall from grace as former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s deputy. In 1998, he was accused of both corruption and sodomy – with a chauffeur and a former speechwriter. Ibrahim was convicted of the crime and sentenced to nine years in prison. He was finally released in 2004 after the Supreme Court overturned the verdict.
Human rights activists have repeatedly spoken out against Malaysia’s treatment of the LGBT community. Human Rights Watch said the laws were “unjustifiable” and “outdated.”
In 2001, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Malaysia would deport any foreign diplomats who are gay. The Royal Malaysian Navy has declared that it will never accept homosexuals and the country’s Censorship Board has said that it will only allow the depiction of homosexual characters in film if the characters repent or die.
In response, a nascent LGBT movement is beginning to take shape. In 2008, for example, a sexuality rights festival, called Seksuality Merdeka, was held in Kuala Lumpur. It was repeated in 2009, but was banned by the police in 2011. However, gay rights activists have since launched a legal challenge to protest the ban of the festival, and a film launched in March last year featured gay lead characters. A blog authored by a gay Royal Malaysian Navy officer has also become popular.
Anwar has gone on record to say that the laws governing homosexuality in Malaysia are archaic and need to be reformed. “It is not my business to attack people or arrest people based on their sexual orientation,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “Morality is in the public sphere, not beyond that.” However, Ibrahim was careful to maintain that he believed in the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman and didn’t support the legalization of gay marriage.