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Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysian Opposition Leader, Is Pardoned

Posted May 16, 2018 12:44 a.m. EDT

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Anwar Ibrahim, the imprisoned longtime opposition leader in Malaysia, was pardoned and released from custody Wednesday, opening the door for his possible ascent to become prime minister after a coalition of his allies won a national election last week.

Anwar, 70, left Cheras Rehabilitation Hospital in Kuala Lumpur, where he was recovering from shoulder surgery.

Crowds of supporters gathered outside the hospital to welcome his release, greeting him and his wife, Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who is to become deputy prime minister, as they walked out and got into a vehicle. They were expected to meet with Malaysia’s king, Sultan Muhammad V, who will inform him of the pardon in person, officials said.

Anwar was sentenced to five years in prison on a sodomy charge in 2015, in a case his supporters say was politically motivated. Now, the pardon will lift a five-year ban on political activity, allowing him to pursue elected office quickly.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has said that he would step aside for Anwar but that such a transition could take a year or two.

Mahathir, 92, had been Anwar’s mentor once before, but after their relationship imploded 20 years ago, few expected they would rejoin at the top of Malaysian politics.

Anwar had been a top deputy to Mahathir, who was prime minister from 1981 to 2003, and was seen as his likely successor. But after a falling-out between the two in 1998, over how to respond to the Asian financial crisis, Mahathir fired Anwar as deputy prime minister.

Anwar, who began a protest movement against Mahathir and the governing party after railing at his former mentor as being insane, senile and unfit to lead, was then arrested and convicted of corruption and sodomy. Human rights groups and his supporters say those cases were trumped-up at the behest of Mahathir, who publicly stated, “I cannot accept a man who is a sodomist as leader of the country.”

Anwar was released in 2004 and elected to Parliament in 2008 after the five-year restriction on his return to politics expired. That year, he was again accused of sodomy under a British-era law that human rights groups say is archaic. The case was also seen as being politically manipulated by his political rivals, including Najib Razak, who became prime minister in 2009.

Najib was ousted last week, signaling the first time his party, the United Malays National Organization, has been out of power since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957. Many voters said they were upset about reports of widespread corruption, including the alleged misappropriation of billions of dollars from 1Malaysia Development Berhad, a state fund he once led.

Najib and his wife have been barred from leaving the country, and Mahathir said he would be investigated. Officials accused of covering up the scandal have stepped down or were suspended in some of the first official acts of the new government.

On Tuesday evening, the government released the executive summary of a 2016 report by the country’s Auditor General, a ministry, which Mahathir said Saturday would be declassified. While the contents of the report had been previously reported, the release showed the new commitment to transparency on the case. The Auditor General’s website was down most of the evening, apparently from high traffic.

While Anwar is now free, much more must happen before he could become prime minister. First, he must become a member of Parliament. Azizah has said in recent months that she could step down and allow him to run for her seat in a by-election, just as she did in 2008.

And then Mahathir must himself agree to step down. Despite Mahathir’s autocratic past, many of his former rivals have said they believe Dr. M, as the physician turned politician is informally known, is a changed leader, more concerned with polishing his legacy than amassing power.

“We are working with Dr. M on the basis of an agreed written political platform that espouses the return of democracy in Malaysia, protection for human rights and reform of key institutions,” said Sivarasa Rasiah, a member of Parliament from the People’s Justice Party, which Anwar and Azizah founded.