ASEAN Parliamentarian Human Rights (APHR) urged other countries in Southeast Asia to follow Malaysia's lead and end the persecution of opposition politicians and human rights defenders.
"We applaud the new government's prompt action to expedite Anwar's release, as well as the King's decision to grant a full pardon. His release is a step in the right direction for human rights and democracy in Malaysia, as well as the ASEAN region as a whole," said APHR Board Member Teddy Baguilat, a member of the House of Representatives of the Philippines.
Anwar Ibrahim was sentenced to five years in prison in February 2015 on politically motivated sodomy charges under Section 377 of the Malaysian Penal Code. His conviction came amid an intensified crackdown against human rights defenders and others critical of the former ruling government. APHR previously called for Anwar's release and highlighted judicial harassment faced by individuals who criticized his conviction in 2015.
A full pardon issued on Wednesday by the Malaysian King, Sultan Muhammad V, has now reversed the 2015 conviction and will allow Anwar to return to politics. The decision came after a historic election win by the Pakatan Harapan coalition on 9 May, which resulted in immediate action by the new government to push for Anwar's release and pardon.
"Anwar should never have been in jail to begin with. As a victim of unjust government persecution, his release brings in fresh hope for a better Malaysia that promotes good governance and the rule of law. We look forward to welcoming forthcoming developments that will further strengthen democracy and the realization of basic rights," Baguilat said.
"Genuine reform requires the dismantling of repressive institutional structures and practices, including legislative changes and an end to the persecution of government critics. In addition to the release of Anwar, the new government should also consider reviewing other legal cases brought against critical voices, as well as a slew of draconian laws that were used to stifle dissent," he added.
APHR expressed hope that Malaysia's example would inspire its ASEAN neighbors to release their own imprisoned opposition politicians. In Cambodia, Kem Sokha, President of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the country's largest opposition party, which was dissolved by the government last year, has been in pre-trial detention since September 2017. In the Philippines, Senator Leila de Lima, a fierce critic of President Rodrigo Duterte's "war on drugs," has been in pre-trial detention since February 2017. Like Anwar, both have been targeted with trumped up charges designed to derail their political careers.
"We hope that the governments of Cambodia and the Philippines follow Malaysia's lead and end the persecution and imprisonment of opposition politicians. Kem Sokha and Senator De Lima deserve to walk free today as well," Baguilat said.
"Anwar's release is a reminder of the potential of governments to strengthen and uphold fundamental rights and the rule of law, if only those in power have the political will to do so. This move represents a long-awaited and much needed counter to the resurgence of authoritarianism in the region, but there is still much work to be done," he concluded.