WASHINGTON (AP) – The sodomy conviction of Malaysia’s opposition leader has set back, but not derailed, Washington’s improved ties with a country that is becoming increasingly important for US diplomacy and trade policy in Asia.
The White House strongly criticised the conviction of Anwar Ibrahim, whose case was widely seen as politically motivated. That could dash Prime Minister Najib Razak’s hopes this year of being the first Malaysian leader to be invited to the White House since 2004.
The Obama administration has been considering inviting Najib as Malaysia takes the lead of the 10-nation Southeast Asian bloc that has become pivotal for Washington’s engagement with the region.
Anwar began a five-year prison term Tuesday. He posed the most serious threat to Najib’s ruling coalition, whose popularity has eroded after more than five decades of dominance.
An earlier sodomy conviction against Anwar was overturned in 2004 after he’d served six years in prison. That case also drew US criticism and contributed to a rocky period in US-Malaysian relations in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s.
But ties have improved on Najib’s watch. Last April, Barack Obama became the first US president to visit Malaysia since 1966, and the two leaders played golf while both vacationed in Hawaii in December.
The US and Malaysia cooperate on counter-terrorism and have deepening military ties, conducting joint exercises and other training activities. Malaysia sent military medics to Afghanistan, and has supported a US-backed drive to counter proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
So while the White House was quick to speak out over Anwar’s conviction for sodomising a male aide – considered a crime in Malaysia – it spelled out no negative consequences for the US-Malaysia relationship, which was upgraded last year to a “comprehensive partnership.”
National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the case raised “serious concerns about rule of law and the fairness of the judicial system in Malaysia.” But she added, “We remain committed to expanding our cooperation on shared economic and security challenges.”