Judge Zabidin Mohamad Diah found Anwar not guilty due to doubts over whether DNA samples tendered as evidence were contaminated, setting off celebrations by thousands of opposition supporters outside the High Court in Kuala Lumpur.
“And because it was a sexual offence, the court is reluctant to convict on uncorroborated evidence. Therefore the accused is acquitted and discharged,” Zabidin told a packed courtroom in the Malaysian capital.
Sex between males is a criminal offence in this mainly Muslim country of 28 million people and it was the second time Anwar was charged under the law.
A conviction would have meant a jail term of up to 20 years, effectively ending Anwar’s leadership of the opposition three-party Pakatan coalition at a crucial time when Prime Minister Najib Razak is preparing for elections.
Najib has slowly introduced political and economic reforms but is wary of moving too aggressively and provoking a backlash by conservatives in his Muslim ethnic-Malay dominated government.
Anwar was heir-apparent to then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in the late 1990s before he fell out with his mentor and was sacked as deputy prime minister and then jailed on sodomy and corruption charges. The conviction was over-turned in 2004 after he had served six years.
He was expelled from the long-ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) but is currently Najib’s main rival for the votes of the country’s Malay majority.
Anwar has promoted a rival vision for Malaysia that would abolish or scale back its most authoritarian laws and scrap a system of ethnic preferences for Malays that ethnic-Chinese and ethnic-Indian Malaysians say is unfair and has been cited by even some prominent Malays for holding Malaysia back.
“In the coming election, the voice of the people will be heard and this corrupt government will be toppled from its pedestals of power,” read a Twitter message from Anwar’s account, minutes after the verdict.
Three explosions were heard in the parking area outside the courthouse where protesters had gathered. Ramli Mohamed Yoosuf, a police spokesman, said two people were injured and taken to hospital.
A preliminary investigation found that two explosive devices were placed under police cones, but it was not clear who was responsible.
Anwar has long contended the trial was a plot by the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition to prevent him from taking power at the next election, which is not due until 2013 but may be called this year before a potential global downturn stalls Malaysia’s economic growth.
“(The verdict) will be more wind in the sails of the opposition Pakatan’s camp than in Barisan Nasional’s camp,” said Ooi Kee Beng, a deputy director at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies of Singapore.
“Najib can of course say that the judiciary is not as corrupt as Pakatan says but so what? If the judiciary is not very corrupt, it doesn’t mean that the government is good.”
Najib’s approval ratings have fallen over the year due to a growing religious divide that has alienated minority non-Muslims and fanned middle-class anger over inflation and the slow pace of promised political reforms.
Najib’s government cited the verdict as evidence that the judicial system was independent under his leadership and as a sign his reforms were working. That line of argument could weaken the opposition by depriving it of one of its main accusations: that the courts are skewed towards the government.
“Malaysia has an independent judiciary and this verdict proves that the government does not hold sway over judges’ decisions,” the government said in a statement that also praised Najib’s “bold democratic reforms.”
The verdict also helps Najib avoid international condemnation of Malaysian courts at a time when he hopes to improve ties with the United States and Europe.
Earlier, about 2,000 Anwar supporters had gathered outside the court, chanting “reformasi” (reform) and carrying banners reading “People are the judge” and “We are against slander” under heavy police presence.
Anwar behind bars could have been a powerful unifying force for Malaysia’s opposition, and now that he is freed he faces the difficult task of trying to bring together disparate strands into one movement that could challenge Najib, said Shaun Levine, an Asia analyst with political risk consultancy Eurasia Group in Washington.
“This puts pressure on Najib to call the election even sooner,” Levine said. Reuters