A court decision upholding Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s conviction on sodomy charges raises “serious concerns about rule of law and the fairness of the judicial system in Malaysia,” the White House said Tuesday.
The relatively rare public rebuke over a foreign criminal conviction came despite warming relations between the U.S. and the Malaysian government. President Obama visited the country last year, as the first sitting president to do so in nearly half a century.
Anwar, a popular political figure seen as the only viable threat to the ruling Barisan Nasional party, which has held power since 1957, will serve five years in jail.
He has denounced the accusations that he had sex with a male aide — illegal in Muslim-majority Malaysia — as a politically motivated conspiracy. The conviction came after the government appealed a 2012 verdict acquitting him of the charges due to lack of evidence.
The White House said its concern over Anwar’s continued prosecution was compounded by signals the government intended to expand its sedition law. Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is seen as an ally by the administration, had previously pledged to repeal the law targeting government critics.
“We urge the Government of Malaysia to apply the rule of law fairly, transparently, and apolitically in order to promote confidence in Malaysia’s democracy, judiciary, and economy,” National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in a statement.