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Malaysian leader Anwar Ibrahim — jailed for years following a conviction on sodomy charges widely viewed as politically motivated — walked free on Wednesday following a royal pardon.
The pardon, granted by Malaysia’s King Muhammad V, was announced last week, a day after Mahathir Mohamad, the 92-year-old political stalwart who was prime minister for more than 20 years until he resigned in 2003, returned to power after a 15-year hiatus.
As NPR’s Bill Chappell reported last week, the move to pardon Anwar “had been discussed as a possibility before the election, but that was before the opposition pulled off its upset victory. The new coalition is led by Mahathir … – Anwar’s one-time ally, then his bitter enemy and, most recently, his political savior.”
Anwar, now 70, was convicted in 2014 for a second time on charges of homosexuality in conservative Muslim Malaysia. In a strange twist of fate, however, it was Mahathir — the man whose stunning upset in elections last week paved the way for Anwar’s release — who put him in prison the first time in 1999. On that occasion, Anwar spent five years in jail before his conviction was overturned.
The charges of sodomy first surfaced in a book written by the ex-editor of a state-run newspaper that then came to light at a time when Anwar — who had been fired from Mahathir’s government where he had served as deputy prime minister and finance minister — had formed his “Reformasi” (“Reform”) movement to challenge Mahathir.
In the elections last week, Anwar had thrown his support behind Mahathir. However, as Reuters notes, “The question for Malaysia now is how Anwar will get along with [Mahathir], his ally-turned-foe-turned-ally, and what role he will play in the new government.”
On Wednesday, however, the old rift seemed to recede to the background as Anwar basked in what he called a “new dawn.”
“I have given my assurance, I am here as a concerned citizen to give complete support to manage the country on the understanding that we are committed to the reform agenda, beginning with the judiciary, media and the entire apparatus,” Anwar said at a news conference at his home after leaving custody.
Anwar said he had no immediate plans for a return to politics and meant to spend time with his family after three years in jail.
“I’ve told Tun Mahathir, I don’t need to serve in the cabinet for now,” he said, using an honorific for the prime minister.
On May 9 Mahathir defeated Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was hobbled by a long-running and extensive corruption scandal that weighed heavily on his ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.
Anwar has continued to enjoy considerable popularity in Malaysia, despite his being jailed. When he was retried again four years ago during Najib’s tenure, the Asia Sentinel prophetically observed that his conviction “could boost the opposition leader’s political standing and damage the ruling Barisan Nasional.”