KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - A Malaysian court acquitted opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim of sodomy charges Monday, a surprise ruling that could accelerate the political comeback of one of Asia's most celebrated reformers ahead of an expected election this year.
"Justice has been done. I am vindicated," Anwar told thousands of supporters outside Kuala Lumpur's High Court at the end of the two-year trial that captivated the Muslim-majority nation since a former aide made the accusations in 2008. Some shouted "God is Great" and "reformasi" (reform).
The decision, based on the possible contamination of DNA samples, gives the opposition a firebrand leader in time for elections expected this year.
But it could also undermine one of his main arguments against the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak: that the judiciary is corrupt and biased.
"Najib can come out right now and say the government is reforming. He can point to this and say, things are changing. Now you're seeing an independent judiciary," said Shaun Levine, an Asia analyst with political risk consultancy Eurasia Group in Washington.
Judge Zabidin Mohamad Diah found Anwar not guilty due to doubts over whether DNA samples tendered as evidence were contaminated.
"And because it was a sexual offence, the court is reluctant to convict on uncorroborated evidence. Therefore the accused is acquitted and discharged," Zabidin told a packed courtroom in the Malaysian capital.
Sex between males is a criminal offence in the country of 28 million people. It was the second time Anwar, a 64-year-old father of six, was charged under the law.
FORMER POLITICAL STAR
In the 1990s, Anwar was Malaysia's political star, heir-apparent to then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, his goateed, bespectacled face appearing on the cover of Time magazine in 1997 next to words "The Future of Asia."
But he was sacked a year later as deputy prime minister and finance minister after campaigning against corruption and nepotism in politics, and then jailed on sodomy and corruption charges that Anwar and rights groups said were trumped up.
He spent six years in prison until his sodomy conviction was overturned in 2004, and then swiftly returned to politics as the head of a revitalized, multi-ethnic opposition whose strong showing in 2008's elections deprived the ruling National Front of its traditional two-thirds majority in parliament.
Within weeks of that victory, and with his three-party Pakatan coalition close to a parliamentary majority, a former aide, Saiful Bukhari Azlan, filed a criminal complaint accusing Anwar of sodomizing him.
Anwar called the charges a "vile and despicable attempt at character assassination" by the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition ahead of elections due in 2013 but likely to be held this year. A large majority of Malaysians surveyed in opinion polls also doubted the merit of the charges.
"The (verdict) will be more wind in the sails of the opposition Pakatan's camp than in Barisan Nasional's camp," said Ooi Kee Beng, a deputy director at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies of Singapore.
"Najib can of course say that the judiciary is not as corrupt as Pakatan says but so what? If the judiciary is not very corrupt, it doesn't mean that the government is good."
Najib, the son of a former prime minister, has slowly introduced social and political reforms while struggling to reverse a decline in opinion polls as leader of the United Malays National Organization, the Muslim ethnic-Malay dominated party that has ruled since independence from Britain in 1957.
His approval ratings have fallen over the year due to a growing religious divide that has alienated minority non-Muslims and fanned middle-class anger over the slow pace of promised political reforms.
"Malaysia has an independent judiciary and this verdict proves that the government does not hold sway over judges' decisions," his government said in a statement that also praised Najib's "bold democratic reforms."
But Najib is wary of moving too aggressively and provoking a backlash by conservatives in his Muslim ethnic-Malay dominated government. The election will be a test of whether he can assert a reformist agenda within his own party, Malaysia's biggest.
A conviction would have meant a jail term of up to 20 years, effectively ending Anwar's leadership of the opposition.
Anwar has promoted a rival vision for Malaysia that would abolish or scale back its most authoritarian laws and scrap a system of ethnic preferences for Malays that ethnic-Chinese and ethnic-Indian Malaysians say is unfair and has been cited by even some prominent Malays for holding Malaysia back.
Three explosions were heard in the parking area outside the courthouse around the time of the verdict, causing minor injuries to five people and damaging half a dozen cars and motorbikes. A police spokesman said three home-made explosives were detonated but it was unclear who was responsible.