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The Globe and Mail

Persecution of Anwar Ibrahim is an erosion of Malaysian human rights

When Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared on its way to Beijing, the unfolding mystery shone a harsh light on the political elite in Kuala Lumpur, which seemed bumbling and confused as they responded to the unfolding tragedy.

But this missing plane – revealing as it was of Malaysia's coddled, authoritarian ruling class, some of whom essentially inherited their positions – offered only a fleeting, limited glimpse into Malaysian politics. For a more thorough and depressing window on the battered state of Malaysia's democracy, turn to the ongoing persecution of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

Just a day before the flight went missing in March, 2014, a Malaysian court sentenced Mr. Anwar, a former deputy prime minister in the ruling coalition, to five years in jail on trumped-up sodomy charges. The rushed ruling, which overturned a 2012 acquittal, was moved up from a scheduled April date, preventing Mr. Anwar from running in a district state assembly election later that month. It was a clear attempt to neutralize opposition to the Barisan Nasional coalition, which has ruled Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957, but is becoming increasingly unpopular.

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On Tuesday, the Federal Court of Malaysia upheld the lower court ruling and Mr. Anwar was sentenced to five years in prison. Combined with a five-year ban on participating in politics after he has completed his sentence, it may effectively end the 67-year-old's political career.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, the son of a former prime minister, and his allies are trying to paint this development as the result of objective due process. But critics suggest that is unlikely: Mr. Anwar's imprisonment is not only an injustice for Mr. Anwar, but an erosion of Malaysian human rights more broadly.

"It's an absolute travesty," Dan Slater, a University of Chicago specialist on Southeast Asian politics, said in an e-mail. "When a government appeals an acquittal like this, it becomes nothing better than a witch-hunt. Nobody can possibly still believe that the Najib regime is committed to democratic reform in any way."

Hugo Swire, the British government's Minister for Asia, said he was "deeply concerned" by the case, saying it "raises worrying questions about the independence of the judiciary and rule of law." Human Rights Watch also called the decision "politically motivated" and a "major setback for human rights," and demanded the repeal of the sodomy law – which also discriminates against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Critics' concerns about deteriorating rights appeared to have been borne out. A Malaysian cartoonist known as Zunar tweeted his outrage about the ruling. He was promptly detained on charges of sedition, which are frequently used against opposition politicians, journalists and professors in a political environment where most newspapers and broadcasters are linked to the ruling coalition.

These are worrying developments on their own, particularly since it is Mr. Anwar's second sodomy conviction – the first was overturned in 2004. But the current political backdrop is even more depressing. In the last election, Mr. Najib's coalition won 60 per cent of the seats with just 49 per cent of the popular vote, its worst showing since independence. Mr. Anwar's Pakatan Rakyat coalition won 51 per cent of the vote but could not form the government. This was largely thanks to gerrymandering, in which areas with potential opposition supporters are corralled into hugely populous voting districts while largely vacant constituencies are lavished on sparse rural areas that support ruling parties.

Kai Ostwald, co-director of the University of British Columbia's Centre for Southeast Asia Research, says Mr. Anwar was the charismatic anchor for what is mostly a coalition of convenience among opposition parties. But he notes that the Bersih movement for clean and fair elections mobilized after Barisan's questionable victories in recent years, while the Reformasi (reform) movement came about after Mr. Anwar was fired as deputy prime minister and first charged with corruption and sodomy back in 1998. "The conditions are right for a recurrence of this [type of opposition movement]," Mr. Ostwald says, "so all are carefully watching how the government and opposition react."

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