2004-09-02 09:29:29 UTC
Thu Sep 2, 2004 03:32 AM ET
By Mark Bendeich
PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia (Reuters) - Once the young lion of Malaysian
politics, jailed former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim left court a free
man on Thursday and promptly resumed a call for government reform --
but without his usual roar.
Sitting in a wheelchair and wearing a neck brace due to a back injury,
Anwar presented a contrast from the days in 1998 when he took the
fateful step of challenging veteran leader Mahathir Mohamad and
leading anti-government street protests.
This time Anwar had praise for the current prime minister and hailed
what he called Thursday's independent judicial decision to quash his
"trumped-up" conviction for sodomy.
"I must point out that his predecessor (Mahathir) would not have done
the change and reform. I have to give credit to the prime minister for
not interfering with the judiciary," he told reporters in the packed
courtroom after the watershed ruling.
The ruling came on the sixth anniversary of Anwar's sacking at the
hands of Mahathir and could prove a defining moment for Mahathir's
successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who in a moment has emerged as the
healer of one of Malaysia's worst political sores.
But Anwar, who Mahathir had once annointed his political heir, is
barred from politics until 2008, due to an earlier conviction on
corruption. He served out that sentence last year and now wants to go
Germany for a back operation.
Only a few months ago, Anwar told Reuters that it served Abdullah to
keep him locked up.
Anwar's sacking and arrest in September 1998 united a disparate
opposition, posing one of the biggest challenges to then prime
minister Mahathir and sparking a "Reformasi" movement calling for an
end to corruption and cronyism.
ANWAR'S THUNDER STOLEN
But in recent elections, the 57-year-old Anwar saw his support base
eroded as Abdullah himself pledged to fight corruption and to make
government more transparent. Abdullah, campaigning on a platform to
clean up corruption, led his ruling coalition to a landslide election
victory in March.
The pro-Anwar's Parti Keadilan (Justice Party), which sprang out of
his "reformasi" movement for the 1999 elections, lost all but one of
its five parliamentary seats in the March polls.
Anwar was sentenced to a total of 15 years in jail for abuse of power
and sodomy -- charges he said were fabricated by Mahathir's government
to prevent him challenging the ex-premier.
Anwar was first jailed for six years in April 1999 for abuse of power.
With two years off for good behaviour, that sentence ended in 2003. He
was serving out the nine years he received in 2000 for sodomy when
Thursday's ruling set him free.
Anwar denied all the charges, saying he was framed by Mahathir and
associates to ensure he would never succeed his former mentor and
expose corruption and cronyism.
Mahathir denies the accusations, saying he sacked Anwar because he was
morally unfit to rule.
Following Anwar's ouster, thousands of his mostly Malay supporters
took to the streets, demanding that Mahathir step down.
Anwar was dumped in the midst of Asia's financial crisis, which opened
up a rift between Anwar and a business elite close to Mahathir.
Tensions that arose as a decade-long economic boom came to an end
highlighted the two leaders' different styles.
Suave and articulate, Anwar rubbed shoulders with international
financiers and was eventually equated with the economic orthodoxy that
the acerbic Mahathir said mortgaged Malaysia's future to foreign
Anwar's initial prescription -- tight money and budget surpluses --
met recommendations from the International Monetary Fund but
exacerbated Malaysia's first slowdown in 13 years.
The downfall of Indonesian President Suharto in May 1998 emboldened
Anwar's supporters, and his speeches were seen as a threat to
Mahathir, who retired last year after 22 years in power.
Born on August 10, 1947, Anwar went to the Malay College in the royal
town of Kuala Kangsar, one of Malaysia's top schools, and made his
name as a firebrand Islamic youth leader.
He was jailed for 20 months under the Internal Security Act beginning
in 1974 for leading anti-government demonstrations against
impoverished conditions in the north.
Mahathir invited him to join UMNO in 1982 and Anwar began a meteoric
rise. He held a string of senior cabinet posts, including the
ministries of agriculture and education, and had been finance minister
since 1991 before being sacked.
Anwar is married to former eye doctor Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who now
leads the opposition Parti Keadilan Nasional. The couple have six
children, five girls and a boy.
(Additional reporting by Jalil Hamid)