Malaysia's reformist icon Anwar freed, given royal pardon

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Reformist icon Anwar Ibrahim celebrated a "new dawn" for Malaysia after he was given a royal pardon and freed from custody Wednesday, transforming a political prisoner into a prime minister-in-waiting following his alliance's stunning election victory.

Anwar, 70, was convicted of sodomy in 2015 in a case that he said was aimed at crushing his alliance, which was making gains against Malaysia's long-ruling coalition government. His sentence was set to end June 8, but last week's unexpected election win, which ended the National Front's 60-year rule, led to his swift release.

"Now there is a new dawn for Malaysia," he told a news conference at his house.

Anwar said he was grateful to Malaysians, "regardless of race and religion, who stood by the principles of democracy and freedom."

The election result was a demand for change and it's the new government's responsibility to ensure that mandate is honored, he said.

Earlier, Anwar was thronged by scores of supporters and reporters after he walked free from a hospital, where he was recovering from shoulder surgery, and whisked away to an audience with Malaysia's king. The royal palace said in a statement that the monarch had given Anwar a full pardon following advice from the Pardons Board.

Analysts say his release could cause tensions in the new government led by Mahathir Mohamad, who after leading the four-party alliance in the election campaign has become the world's oldest leader. The 92-year-old Mahathir is the chairman of the alliance and Anwar is its de facto leader.

Anwar sought to allay those concerns, saying he was not in a hurry to take over from Mahathir. Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, is currently the deputy prime minister.

Anwar, who needs to contest a by-election to become a member of Parliament, said he doesn't want a Cabinet post yet as he plans to spend time with his family and travel abroad for speaking engagements. He reiterated his full support for Mahathir's leadership and said their political feud has long been buried.

"I have forgiven him," Anwar said. "He has proven his mettle. He made his sacrifices and was maligned in the media. I tell you, it is like deja vu."

"He has struggled and worked indefatigably hard," he said. "He has now supported the reform agenda. He facilitated my release. Why should I harbor any malice toward him?"

Anwar's party has disputed Mahathir's appointment of three top Cabinet posts, but Anwar said it was only a difference over the consultation process, adding that it was Mahathir's prerogative as prime minister to form the Cabinet.

Mahathir, prime minister for 22 years until 2003, has said he will run the country for "one to two years" to fix Malaysia's financial problems.

It was Anwar's second spell in prison. Once a high flyer in the ruling party, he was first convicted of homosexual sodomy and corruption after a power struggle with Mahathir in 1998.

Anwar and his supporters have long denied the sodomy allegations, saying they were concocted to destroy his political career. Yet rather than give up, Anwar worked from his prison cell to forge a new opposition alliance by ending the two-decade feud with Mahathir — a gamble that paid off when the alliance won the May 9 polls.

Anwar said the royal pardon was granted to him on the grounds of a "travesty of justice" and a clear conspiracy to kill his political career by Najib Razak, who was denied a third term as prime minister in last week's election.

He said that he has no malice against Najib, but that the former leader "has to answer" for corruption scandals that led to his coalition's defeat. Anwar said he was touched that his 20-year struggle for reform has finally paid off.

Asked about the new government's pledge to review large Chinese infrastructure projects, Anwar said that like Mahathir, he welcomed Chinese investment but was concerned about the manner in which the deals were done. He said there must be transparency and accountability to ensure the deals are in the nation's interest.

"The hope is that Anwar and Mahathir will find a way to work together, especially during this period of transition," said Rashaad Ali, research analyst with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

"This is an opportunity for both of them to move forward for the sake of the country," he said. "There may be clashes between these two big personalities, but (officials in their) coalition as well as the expectations of Malaysians will provide a check and balance."

Amnesty International said Anwar's release was a "landmark moment for human rights" in Malaysia and called for repressive laws muzzling freedom of expression and assembly to be repealed.

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