, KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 9 – Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was acquitted on Monday in a stunning conclusion to a two-year sodomy trial that he had condemned as a conspiracy to cripple his resurgent political alliance.
“Thank God, justice has been served,” Anwar told reporters after being cleared of sexual misconduct with a young male aide, and pledged to topple the government in national polls expected to be held this year.
“In the coming election, voice of the people will be heard and this corrupt government will be toppled from its pedestals of power,” he added in a Twitter posting.
The unexpected decision set off pandemonium at the Kuala Lumpur High Court where Anwar — a former deputy premier who was sacked and convicted on separate sodomy charges in 1998 — was mobbed by his family and opposition politicians.
Thousands of supporters who had gathered outside under heavy security since before dawn, many in Muslim skullcaps or Anwar masks, erupted into cheers and punched their fists in the air.
In impromptu rallies near the courthouse, they shouted the opposition’s battle cry of “Reformasi!” (reform), while scores headed to a nearby mosque to give thanks.
In his brief verdict, Judge Mohamad Zabidin Diah said that he could not rely on controversial DNA evidence submitted by the prosecution in the case lodged by Anwar’s aide Mohamad Saiful Bukhari Azlan.
“The court is always reluctant to convict on sexual offences without corroborative evidence. Therefore, the accused is acquitted and discharged,” he said.
The verdict in the long-running trial defied the expectations of many political observers and even Anwar himself, who had said the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak was intent on eliminating him as a political threat.
Information Minister Rais Yatim said: “Malaysia has an independent judiciary and this verdict proves that the government does not hold sway over judges’ decisions.
“The current wave of bold democratic reforms introduced by Prime Minister Najib Razak will help extend this transparency to all areas of Malaysian life,” he said in a statement.
Najib faces a deadline of early next year to hold new polls in the ethnically diverse and resource-rich nation, in which he hopes to reverse unprecedented gains made by the opposition in landmark 2008 elections.
But with his name cleared, Anwar can now campaign freely at the helm of his opposition alliance — which brings together his multi-racial Keadilan, a conservative Islamic party, and a liberal Chinese-based party.
The surprise verdict throws the electoral landscape wide open, said Ibrahim Suffian, head of Malaysia’s leading polling firm Merdeka Center.
The outcome “vindicates Anwar and significantly removes doubts about his personal conduct, which has been a concern especially among conservative Muslim voters,” Ibrahim said.
But he added that Najib can now also plausibly claim that his recent pledge to end Malaysia’s authoritarian ways — which the opposition has called an empty election ploy — is sincere.
Tensions spiked briefly outside the court as two people were injured in at least three small blasts, with police blaming firecrackers for the explosions that damaged a motorcycle and shattered the window of a van.
Police had given rare consent for the courthouse rally, but were concerned over the prospects of trouble given the massive crowds that took to the streets after Anwar’s 1990s downfall.
Ahead of Monday’s verdict, hundreds of police officers and other security forces guarded the streets around the court, which was cordoned off, and a water cannon truck was on standby.
“All of a sudden he is free. I feel very excited. Finally he got justice,” said jubilant hotel worker Shima Sharif, 46, as news of the acquittal electrified the crowds.
The charismatic Anwar had been groomed to succeed then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad until a bitter row between them forced Anwar out in 1998, and he was jailed on sodomy and graft charges widely seen as politically motivated.
He was freed in 2004 after the sodomy charge was overturned and assumed the helm of the opposition, which seized control of five states and a third of parliamentary seats in the 2008 polls.
The new charges emerged shortly after, sparking accusations they were concocted by the government to stall the opposition revival which threatened its half-century grip on power.
Sodomy is illegal in Muslim-majority Malaysia and punishable by up to 20 years in jail.
“The case against Anwar was politically motivated and plagued with irregularities,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement after the verdict.
He called on Najib to repeal colonial-era laws against consensual homosexual acts as part of his liberalising drive.