- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2004

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The unexpected release from jail yesterday of charismatic former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim threw a new twist into Malaysian politics, already in the grip of change after the retirement last year of long-serving Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Mr. Anwar immediately pledged to carry on his battle for political reforms after winning a final appeal in the country’s top court against his conviction for sodomy — six years to the day after he was sacked by Mr. Mahathir.

He was arrested weeks later.

Under Malaysian law, Mr. Anwar is banned as a convict from political activity for five years, but could run for office in the next elections. If the Federal Court overturns his corruption conviction at a hearing on Monday, he could attempt an immediate political comeback.

But analysts said he is not expected to pose any real threat to Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who has strengthened his grip on power after a resounding election victory in March.

“His release has removed a focus of criticism against the government and its policies. I don’t consider a free Anwar as a threat to the current leadership,” said Robert Broadfoot, managing director of the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy.

“I don’t see Anwar being a banner around which an opposition to Abdullah is going to merge. Abdullah has done a really good job of winning back the grass-roots Malay support that Mahathir had lost. His release, if anything, will bring back Malay detractors to the government.”

[The Associated Press said Mr. Anwar is expected to travel to Germany for surgery to treat a back injury, partly blamed on a beating by Malaysia’s police chief after his arrest in 1998 for leading a massive anti-Mahathir demonstration.

Judge Abdul Hamid Mohamad read yesterday’s verdict over 11/2 hours. As it became apparent that Mr. Anwar, 57, would be released, the prisoner — wearing a neck brace and confined to a wheelchair — exchanged excited glances with family members and gave a thumbs-up sign.]

Mr. Anwar told Agence France-Presse after his release that while he could not preclude running for office in the next elections, he first needed to consult party leaders. He brushed aside rumors of political wheeling and dealing to secure his freedom.

Although it is not clear how Mr. Anwar will play his cards, Mr. Broadfoot said the politician would be a formidable force. But it might be tough for him to claw his way back to the highest levels of power or to be reconciled with his former party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

Mr. Anwar was expelled from UMNO, the linchpin of the ruling coalition, shortly after his removal from office. His wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, and supporters later created the National Justice Party, which was eliminated in the March elections with only Mrs. Wan Azizah securing a parliamentary seat.

Malaysian Strategic Research Center Executive Director Abdul Razak Baginda said popular support for Mr. Anwar has faded over the years and the support now was “more out of sympathy than for him to make a comeback.”

Mr. Abdullah has left open the prospect that Mr. Anwar might rejoin UMNO, but Mrs. Wan Azizah angrily dismissed such talk and said her party would continue to fight for political reform.

Asked whether prison had changed her husband, she said: “He is a sick man now. Physically he has changed, he is weaker, you can see that. But the spirit, the resilience, the commitment I think is more than before.”

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