KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Tuesday for Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to get a fair trial but carefully sought to avoid offending the Malaysian government.
Anwar, on trial for sodomy in what Washington views as a politically motivated case, has denied the charge and says it is a repeat of a government conspiracy that saw him dismissed as deputy prime minister in 1998.
Clinton is in Malaysia for meetings with top officials of a country that has seen its relations with the United States improve significantly in recent years despite the disagreement over Anwar's treatment.
"It's well known that the United States believes that it is important for all aspects of the case to be conducted fairly and transparently and in a way that increases confidence in the rule of law in Malaysia," Clinton told reporters at a news conference with Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman.
In a clear reference to Anwar's case in its annual report on human rights, the State Department bluntly stated that the Malaysian government "continued to pursue the prosecution of a prominent opposition leader on politically motivated charges."
Clinton said she has discussed the case with the government but it was unclear whether she did so Tuesday or in the past.
"I have raised it and we have continued to raise it and it is a part of our ongoing dialogue," she said.
'IT CAN HAPPEN TO THE REST OF US'
Anifah said his government wanted to ensure that Anwar received a fair trial and would not interfere in the case.
"What surprises me is that if there is a political prosecution ... the Malaysian national government is much smarter. We may as well stop Anwar before he becomes a member of parliament rather than bring it to the open trial in the court," Anifah told reporters.
"It is my interest and our interest to make sure that Anwar gets a fair trial because if there is such thing as a political prosecution -- if it can happen to Anwar -- it can happen to the rest of us," he said.
Clinton did not meet Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, who is ill, during her visit to the South East Asian nation, but spoke to him by telephone from his hospital room.
In what appeared to be a carefully calibrated effort to ensure symmetry, two U.S. officials said Clinton would speak to Anwar on the telephone but would not meet him face-to-face.
The Malaysian government appeared to appreciate Clinton's delicacy, particularly during a week when the ruling coalition is facing two key by-elections on Thursday, in the northern state of Kelantan and eastern Sabah state on Borneo island.
"I have no objections at all if Secretary Clinton wants to see Anwar Ibrahim," Anifah said, adding it would be customary for her to meet the opposition. He also said he "appreciated" Clinton's stance and he did not wish there to be any appearance America was backing any party or individual in the by-elections.
Najib's government needs a convincing win in both races to signal a turnaround for the coalition, which posted its worst ever result in the 2008 general election.
Victory in the by-elections would also pave the way for Najib to call for early national polls to secure his own mandate, although a general election is not due until 2013.
(Additional reporting by Y-Sing Liau; Editing by Alex Richardson)