KUALA LUMPUR , Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Friday he will form a lean cabinet with 10 core ministries and start the process of obtaining an immediate pardon for jailed opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim.
Mahathir was sworn in as Malaysia’s seventh premier late Thursday, a day after leading his four-party opposition alliance to a stunning election victory that ousted scandal-plagued Prime Minister Najib Razak and ended his coalition’s 60-year unbroken grip on power. It was a remarkable comeback for Mahathir, who was premier for 22 years until his retirement in 2003 and is now the world’s oldest leader at 92.
Mahathir said the king has indicated he was willing to give an immediate pardon that would free Anwar, who was jailed in 2015 on sodomy charges he said were fabricated by the then-government to crush the opposition.
“We will go through the proper process of obtaining a pardon for Anwar… it is going to be a full pardon, which of course, means he is not only pardoned but to be released immediately,” he told a news conference. He didn’t say how long the process will take and whether Anwar could be freed before his sentence ends June 8.
It was a second spell in prison for Anwar, a former deputy prime minister in the defeated ruling party who was also imprisoned under Mahathir in 1998 following a power struggle. Anwar and Mahathir joined forces in an unlikely alliance that helped the opposition nailed the electoral victory.
Mahathir’s deputy in the new government is Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Anwar’s wife and the leader of his People’s Justice Party. She is the first female deputy premier in Malaysia but the current set-up is seen as transitional as Mahathir has agreed to hand over the baton to Anwar once he is freed.
Mahathir has been coy about how long he will stay in his new job. Anwar will need to contest and win a by-election after he is freed to become a member of parliament before he takes on the top job.
Mahathir said his four-party alliance will hold a meeting Saturday and name 10 ministers for a start. He said he doesn’t want a “huge” cabinet, in a veiled reference to past cabinets with more than 30 ministers.
He also issued a strong warning against graft, with corrupt officials to be replaced in an overhaul of government departments. He indicated this could include Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali, who was appointed after Najib sacked the then-attorney general in 2015 to escape possible prosecution over a corruption scandal involving the 1MDB state fund.
“The attorney-general has undermined his own credibility. He has, in fact, hidden evidence of wrongdoing and that is wrong in law,” Mahathir said.
Anger over the 1MDB scandal prompted Mahathir to emerge from retirement and sparked the anger that helped to oust Najib’s coalition. The fund was set up by Najib in 2009 to promote economic development but it accumulated billions in debts and is under investigations in the U.S. and other countries.
U.S. investigators say Najib’s associates stole and looted at least $4.5 billion from the fund, of which some $700 million landed in Najib’s bank account. Najib denied any wrongdoing and Mohamed Apandi cleared Najib in 2016, saying the money was a donation from Saudi Arabia’s royal family and most of it returned.
Mahathir has said he would not go on a witch hunt but that Najib will be brought to court if there was evidence of wrongdoing.