Regardless of how hard it tries the Malaysian government is all thumbs. As opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was being dragged off to prison for sodomy, the government moved to distance itself from the case but in the process only damaged itself and perhaps the judiciary.
Importantly, judges delivered the final verdict in the Anwar saga shortly after 11 am on Tuesday morning. Wire service journalists, the quickest in the business, had the initial decision in the form of a one line headline, out by 11:11 am.
Yet within 10 minutes government boffins had reacted, written more than one hundred words, had it approved by the appropriate government departments and emailed it to hundreds of media people.
It landed in my inbox by 11:20 am.
It went like this:
Following today’s conviction of Anwar Ibrahim, a Malaysian Government spokesperson said:
“The judges will have reached their verdict only after considering all the evidence in a balanced and objective manner. Malaysia has an independent judiciary, and there have been many rulings against senior government figures.
“The police report against Anwar Ibrahim was brought by a private individual – Anwar’s employee and personal assistant – not by the government. As the victim of a serious sexual assault, he had every right to have his case heard in court.
“In this case, exhaustive and comprehensive due process has been followed over many years. That process is now complete, and we call on all parties involved to respect the legal process and the judgment.”
Given the timings, it was an extraordinary attempt at political spin doctoring and to quote one regional reporter: “How good are they? It was if they already knew the verdict.”
Of course, that would be impossible. As the press statement says, Malaysia’s judiciary is independent.
Anwar was accused of sodomizing his then 23-year-old aid, Saiful Bukhari Azlan, who worked in his campaign office in 2008. He was acquitted by the High Court in 2012 but the Appeals Court overturned the acquittal in March last year and sentenced him to five years in prison.
The appeal was lost in the Federal Court.
Perhaps more importantly, Anwar won more votes at the last election than Prime Minister Najib Razak who secured his job and the position of the United Malaysian National Organization (UMNO), which has ruled this country since independence more than 57 years ago, through gerrymandering.
The decision, the severity of the sentence and the fact that such charges still exist on the statute books have obviously outraged his supporters and human rights groups, who claim the entire case was essentially a political maneuver by UMNO and former leader Mahathir Mohammad to silence him.
And it didn’t stop there.
Immediately after the trial authorities arrested political cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, a political satirist who uses the name Zunar, after he posted a tweet criticizing the decision.
“The reward from their political masters must be plenty,” Zunar apparently wrote in regards to judges hearing the case.
Malaysia’s police chief Khalid Abu Bakar also ordered an investigation into opposition politicians Nga Kor Ming and Rafizi Ramli for sedition.
Nga had apparently tweeted that it was time for people to oppose what he said was a cruel regime. Rafizi tweeted a cartoon of a judge wearing a white wig with the dollar sign on it.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said it was shameful that the Malaysian police had launched the probe.
“Clearly it is designed to intimidate and instil fear in people on social media to go silent on their views. It is a further erosion of freedom of expression in Malaysia,” said HRW’s Asia deputy director Phil Robertson.
“Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government has persisted in its politically motivated prosecution of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim at the expense of democratic freedoms and the rights to non-discrimination and privacy for all Malaysians,” he added.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt