Once again, Malaysia's ruling party turns to outdated sodomy laws to discredit the opposition.
- By Graeme ReidGraeme Reid is director of LGBT rights at Human Rights Watch.
On March 7, Malaysia’s opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, was sentenced to five years in prison for sodomy. This is just the latest iteration in a long and unfortunate history of using sodomy laws against political rivals.
In 1307, King Philip IV of France, deeply indebted to the Order of the Knights Templar, accused the Knights of sodomy and used this as a pretext to dissolve the order. In 1533, King Henry VIII of England promulgated the Buggery Act, accused monks of sodomy, and used that as an excuse to confiscate their monastic lands. King Henry also disposed of his opponent Lord Hungerford by executing him for sodomy in 1540. He had discovered what King Philip realized two centuries earlier: Sodomy accusations are an effective way of getting rid of pesky creditors and trouncing political opponents.
Indeed, what is most exasperating about the verdict of Malaysia’s Court of Appeal in the "sodomy" trial of the opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim is precisely that: It is so politically effective.
The March 7 verdict overturns a 2012 acquittal of Anwar on sodomy charges, effectively taking him out of political life at a crucial time. He was poised to run in an important by-election for state assembly, which, if he won, would have made him eligible to take over as chief minister of Selangor, Malaysia’s most prosperous and developed state. Candidates were required to file applications to run for office on March 11, but Malaysian electoral law prohibits people convicted of a criminal offense from running for office.
Anwar has appealed to Malaysia’s highest court. If it upholds the conviction, he will be forced to give up his parliamentary seat and go to prison. (In the photo above, an optimistic Anwar leaves the court of appeals on March 7.) In addition to the five-year sentence, Malaysian law would prohibit him from running for office for another five years after he serves his sentence. Anwar, now 66, would be 76 before he could resume active political life.
That may be comforting for Prime Minister Najib Razak and the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, which has ruled the country in various forms since its independence from Britain in 1957. Under Anwar’s leadership, the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition has become a potent electoral threat. It won a majority of the popular vote in the May 2013 election, though gerrymandered districts kept it from winning a majority of seats. Anwar is the linchpin for that coalition, holding together three disparate political parties, and has become a political thorn in Najib’s side. The leader’s conviction would spell doom for the opposition party.
Sodomy laws, an antiquated relic of British colonialism, have been used to hound Anwar since 1998. He was ousted as deputy prime minister and jailed on trumped-up sodomy and corruption charges, but freed in 2004 when Malaysia’s highest court overturned the sodomy charges. According to the Women’s Candidacy Initiative, a Malaysian organization, it’s telling that the sodomy laws have only been invoked seven times since 1938 — and in four of those instances, against Anwar.
In 2008, Anwar’s male aide, Mohd Saiful Bukhari, accused him of rape. Police determined that the then 60-year-old Anwar, plagued with back problems, could not have sexually assaulted the healthy 23-year-old Saiful. The charges were changed to consensual sodomy, although Saiful was never charged. During the trial, Saiful admitted that on June 24, 2008, two days before the alleged rape, he had met with the then-Deputy Prime Minister Najib and his wife.
From the outset, the case against Anwar was plagued with irregularities. During the trial, the prosecution refused to turn over key evidence, in spite of requirements in the Malaysian criminal procedure code, including its witness list and witness statements, doctor’s notes, pharmacists’ worksheets and notes on DNA testing and analysis, and closed-circuit television recordings from the condominium guardhouse where the alleged sodomy took place. Meanwhile, the Kuala Lumpur hospital report, authorized by three doctors, found "no conclusive clinical findings suggestive of penetration to the anus."
Anwar was acquitted by the High Court in 2012, based on concerns that DNA evidence brought by the prosecution was tainted. The judge ruled that without the DNA evidence, there was no corroborating evidence other than the word of the accuser and so acquitted Anwar. The government appealed, leading to the recent judgment and five-year sentence.
Yet this is not quite the end of the legal road, since Anwar is free on bail pending his appeal to Malaysia’s highest court. But the accusations and court trials have taken their political toll. The charge itself — sodomy — pejorative even in name, has the effect of discrediting and weakening the political opposition in Malaysia.
Laws that criminalize consensual sex between adults, such as Malaysia’s Criminal Code article 377, contravene broadly accepted international legal standards. The United Nations Human Rights Committee held in 1994 that sodomy laws violate rights to privacy and non-discrimination.
The use of sodomy laws as a political tactic in such a high-profile case is likely to inflict collateral damage on Malaysia’s vulnerable LGBT community. The appeals court’s ruling comes at an especially critical time: A case challenging the constitutionality of Malaysia’s cross-dressing laws (under which transgender women are regularly arrested) is to be heard before the same court this coming May. The government should show that it protects all of its citizens and promptly repeal its sodomy and cross-dressing laws.
Prime Minister Najib has now joined ranks with King Philip and King Henry in resorting to accusations of sodomy to settle political scores. The trial and conviction of Anwar should be seen for what it is: an underhanded move by the ruling party to tarnish and weaken the political opposition without regard to the harm caused to the nation’s judiciary and democratic process.