KUALA LUMPUR, May 16 — Mobbed by ecstatic supporters and journalists, chased through the streets by the media like a celebrity, sharing an audience with the king, and taking selfies with his prison guards.
The euphoric scenes that greeted the release of Malaysia’s reformist Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim from jail today would have been unimaginable just last week, when the country’s longtime authoritarian regime looked set for another general election victory.
But voters resoundingly rejected the government of scandal-tainted Datuk Seri Najib Razak and voted in an Opposition alliance, triggering a series of dizzying developments — with Anwar’s release perhaps the most dramatic yet.
Just a few days after the alliance’s victory, the new government pardoned Anwar. Today, he sparked a frenzy when he walked out of a hospital where he had been receiving treatment — a free man once again.
Bespectacled and dressed in a sharp black suit and dark tie, Anwar was due to give a press conference. But that plan was quickly abandoned as hundreds of journalists surged forward.
Instead, he got into a black SUV, but not before taking a moment to smile broadly to the crowd and give a thumbs-up and a wave.
Accompanied by his wife Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, a former housewife who threw herself into Malaysia’s political struggle after her husband was jailed in the late 1990s, their convoy headed off through Kuala Lumpur.
State-run media outlets, which under the old regime had barely covered Anwar and his travails, followed the motorcade along Kuala Lumpur’s winding highways as presenters offered a breathless running commentary.
The convoy, which picked up vehicles as it sped through the city, carried the 70-year-old Anwar to the king’s palace, where he shared a warm handshake with new Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad — his former nemesis and current ally — before having an audience with the monarch.
At a later press conference, Anwar seemed giddy at the pace of events, reflecting that he had gone from “prison to the palace” in just a day.
Shouts of “Reformasi!” (Reform) –- Anwar’s rallying cry -– rang out as he arrived at his sprawling family compound in a city suburb. Supporters had gathered outside, waving the flags of his political coalition.
In one of the most touching –- and unexpected -– moments of the day, the team of uniformed prison guards who had transferred Anwar to his home lined up to embrace him warmly and take selfies.
“Prison officers and staff... were kind, they were compassionate, they were very supportive,” he said of his time in jail.
Anwar was a charismatic figure and deputy prime minister in the long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition two decades ago until a dramatic falling out with his boss Mahathir, who was prime minister at the time.
Anwar spent six years in jail on much-questioned charges of sodomy and abuse of power. He joined the opposition and led it to historically strong showings at the ballot box.
He was jailed again in 2015, once more on controversial sodomy charges which supporters say were a crude attempt to end his political career.
But the 92-year-old Mahathir, now himself arrayed against the BN coalition he once headed, led Anwar’s pro-reform alliance to a stunning election victory last week and orchestrated the release of his old foe in an extraordinary rapprochement.
Today’s scenes made it clear that Anwar — who said he had received congratulatory calls from around the world including old friend and former US vice president Al Gore — had lost little of his star power.
“The most significant lesson one can learn from prison life is the value of freedom,” Anwar said.
Malaysia’s most famous former prisoner of conscience said no one in his country should ever have to endure his ordeal again.
“We must stop this once and for all,” he said. — AFP