Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, jailed for sodomy four years ago, has walked free from prison after receiving a royal pardon.
Anwar’s release is the first big success of the newly elected governing coalition, Pakatan Harapan, led by 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, which was swept from opposition into power after a shock election victory last week.
At 11.30am on Wednesday, a frail but jubilant Anwar emerged from Cheras rehabilitation hospital in Kuala Lumpur where he has recently been serving his sentence after an operation on his shoulder. He waved to the gathered crowds before getting into a car to go to the National Palace.
Few in Malaysia have been persecuted for their political views and popularity like Anwar, a man with three prison sentences and 11 years in jail to his name. The pardon was filed on the basis of a “miscarriage of justice”.
Sankara Nair, Anwar’s lawyer, said Anwar had seemed “composed and was quite upbeat, but also quite nervous” as he prepared to leave the the hospital. “It’s exhilarating to see him released, this was clearly a miscarriage of justice. This pardon has completely cleared him name at last, but it is a unique pardon, there has never been one like this in Malaysia.”
It was his first taste of freedom since 2014, following a prison sentence widely perceived as politically motivated; a manoeuvre by then prime minister Najib Razak to get rid of a feared political rival who had run against him – and won the popular vote – in the 2013 general election.
Speaking the day before his release, Nurul Izzah, Anwar’s daughter, said he was “deeply exhilarated” at the prospect of release from prison. “It’s been so long that we’ve been craving not just freedom but justice,” she said. “The pardon will completely validate his innocence, so it’s a wonderful day for us. We’ve always been fighting alongside him.”
Among the crowds was Anwar’s old university friend, 78-year-old Azidin Mahmud, who travelled 300 miles to see his old friend’s release. “He has suffered too long but he really is a champion of justice,” said Azidin. “I saw him first speaking at the university of Malaysian Speaker’s Corner in 1968. Then we travelled together around all Malaysia, fighting for the freedom of the poor man. I am very very happy to see my friend finally released today. Long live Anwar Ibrahim.”
Ensuring the full royal pardon of Anwar was a key part of the agreement between Mahathir and the opposition when it was decided in January he would swap sides and run as their leader in the election, united by a joint desire to oust Najib. Mahathir’s previous 22-year reign as prime minister was as head of ruling party UMNO.
Under the same agreement, Mahathir will only serve as prime minister for two years, before handing power, finally, to Anwar. It was a vow he reiterated on the eve of Anwar’s release. “Maybe lasting one or two years, I will be the prime minister,” said Mahathir, though added: “I will play a role in the background even when I step down.”
The release also marks the next phase in Mahathir and Anwar’s turbulent relationship, which has been a decisive part of Malaysian politics for over three decades – Mahathir, after all, was the reason Anwar was jailed in the first place.
Anwar began his career in politics as Mahathir’s protege in the early 1980s – having already spent almost two years in jail for political protest – and quickly rose through the ranks to become deputy prime minister in 1993.
But his first downfall came in 1998, when he and Mahathir fell out over alleged cronyism and economic crisis, and when Mahathir began to fear Anwar’s vast popularity. Anwar was ousted from office and then found himself charged with sodomy and corruption. The resulting court case, the longest in Malaysian history, was an exercise in humiliation for Anwar, who was accused of sodomy with his speechwriter and wife’s chauffeur.
“I cannot accept a man who is a sodomist to become the leader of this country,” said Mahathir at the time. Even though the evidence was flimsy and much of it coerced, Anwar was found guilty in 1999 of corruption and in 2000 of sodomy, landing him with a cumulative 15 year prison sentence.
He was allowed out in 2004, having spent six years in solitary confinement, and was allowed back into politics in 2008, when he ran as opposition leader in the election. But his reappearance on the political scene was not without ramifications. In 2010, he was put on trial again for sodomy, in hearings that went on for two years. He was acquitted, then ran again as opposition leader in the 2013 elections, gaining more of the votes, but still losing to Najib.
Less than a year after Najib won the election, Anwar’s acquittal was overturned and he was sentenced to five years in jail for sodomy, where he has remained since.
Throughout his ordeal, Anwar has remained a uniting figure for the opposition, and his release will be decisive for the Pakatan Harapan coalition, who are already grappling with tension among their divided ranks of Anwar’s PKR party, Mahathir’s party Bersatu, the DAP and Amanah.