Published March 24, 2010 Malaysia presents itself as a modern, successful and democratic nation. Many western leaders have hailed the country as an example of moderate, tolerant Islam â€“ at ease with itself and with the non-Muslim world. Malaysia does indeed have much to be proud of. But the trial of Anwar Ibrahim, which is due to restart this week, is a massive blot on the countryâ€™s reputation for tolerance and political pluralism.
Mr Anwar is a vital figure in the Malaysian opposition. The coalition of opposition forces he leads represents the most potent challenge to the ruling National Front coalition in many years. But Mr Anwar, a married man with six children, is on trial for sodomy. He has already served six years in solitary confinement on charges of sodomy and abuse of power â€“ although the sodomy charges were later over-turned by the courts, leading to Mr Anwarâ€™s release in 2004. If he is convicted this time, he could face a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
The first thing to say is that â€“ even allowing for cultural and religious sensitivities â€“ Malaysia should be embarrassed that it is threatening to send a man to prison for consensual sex with another adult. But there are also considerable doubts about the case against Mr Anwar. The evidence against him is thin and the political context is very clear.
The government of Najib Razak sees Mr Anwar as a threat and has been trying to wreck his political career, using a variety of tactics. Aside from the criminal charges that have been brought against the opposition leader, Mr Anwar has been crudely smeared as a tool of â€œJewishâ€ interests. Asked once whether Mr Anwar would make a good prime minister, Mahathir Mohammad, the former prime minister of Malaysia, replied: â€œHe would make a good prime minister of Israel.â€ A modern state should be ashamed of exploiting racism and homophobia to head off a legitimate political challenge.
But it is not just the Malaysian government that deserves to be chastised. Malaysia is an important market and an influential voice in the Islamic world. As a result, western governments that claim to place human rights at the centre of their foreign policy have been very circumspect in their comments on the Anwar trial. Respect for the courts, for national sovereignty and for cultural difference are all worthy ideas. But sometimes, it is important to speak clearly.Â The trial of Anwar Ibrahim is a disgrace and an embarrassment to Malaysia.