Malaysia's Anwar turns 53 in jail; Canada expresses 'deep concern'

From staff and wire reports

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (CNN) -- As Malaysia's former deputy prime minister turned 53 in jail, Canada summoned its ambassador to Malaysia to express its "deep concern" over Anwar Ibrahim's sodomy conviction and nine-year prison sentence.

Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen announced he would drop Malaysia from his current tour of Asia, and Australian officials questioned the independence of Malaysia's judiciary.

"We have called in the Malaysian High Commissioner today to register our consternation directly with governmental authorities over Mr. Anwar's trial and sentencing," Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy said in a statement.

The statement, dated August 9 and from Ottawa, was issued by Canada's embassy in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday.

Anwar and his adopted brother, Sukma Darmawan, were found guilty on Tuesday of sodomizing Anwar's former driver, Azizan Abu Bakar.

Anwar was sentenced to nine years in prison, to be served consecutive to the six years he is serving for a corruption conviction. After serving the 15 years, Anwar will be disqualified from holding public office for five years.

Sukma, 39, was sentenced to six years in prison and four strokes of a cane. The cane is only applied to people under age 49. However, his sentence was suspended pending appeal. Anwar's lawyers also said they would appeal.

Anwar, sacked from government in September 1998 by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, has denied any wrongdoing, and said the trials were part of a plot by Mahathir to remove him from politics.

'Dare to be different'

As Anwar sat in jail, in solitary confinement, his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, celebrated her husband's birthday -- with a card from a friend bearing a caricature of the former deputy prime minister, wearing an Atlanta Braves baseball outfit.

"Dare to be different" was the slogan on the card. On the back was a message: "The important thing to remember is to keep on swinging until we hit a homerun, and bring the team to victory."

Wan Azizah sent several birthday cards, from family and friends, to Anwar. However, she said she was not allowed to visit him.

"I'd be told I could not go in. If I had anything to deliver, I'd be told to pass it on. And that's it," Wan Azizah told CNN.

On Wednesday, Malaysia brushed aside the increasing international criticism of Anwar's conviction. Mahathir said Anwar had received every opportunity to defend himself in court.

"I am quite sure the court has given this sentence because the court thinks that is the right punishment for whatever," Mahathir said.

Earlier in the day, the United States expressed its concern about the conviction, and Forum-Asia, the Bangkok-based human rights group, said the verdict, announced by Malaysian High Court Judge Arifin Jaka showed a disregard for the rule of law.

International concern

Cohen said he would not visit Malaysia during his trip, and, earlier, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the World Bank, the International Commission of Jurists and U.S.-based Human Rights Watch had condemned the sentence.

"Mr. Anwar is a respected colleague and a man of integrity, who in his capacity as finance minister showed strong dedication to enhancing the financial well-being of the Malaysian people," Canadian Finance Minister Paul Martin said.

"The international community notes with concern the irregularities of his trial, which reflect poorly on the impartiality of Malaysia's judicial system.

"An erosion of confidence in the rule of law in Malaysia not only threatens democracy in that country, but also raises questions about the current government's respect for human rights and good governance," Martin said.

U.S. State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said that the United States was "outraged" by Anwar's conviction, and that the cooperative relationship with Malaysia had been impeded by Malaysia's poor record on human rights.

"This verdict doesn't help matters," Boucher said.

"(Both convictions) cast serious doubt on the impartiality and independence of the Malaysian judiciary," Boucher said. He called Anwar a "victim of political conspiracy."

Supporters pledge to fight

Undaunted by the court's ruling, Anwar's backers vowed during a birthday celebration on Wednesday for to fight to remove Mahathir from office. However, there was no sign of demonstrations on Thursday.

"We will once again rock this nation with our desire that Mahathir Mohamad resign as prime minister of Malaysia," Mohamed Ezam Mohamed Nor, youth leader in the National Justice Party, told a crowd of sympathizers.

"We want to tell Mahathir that we are not afraid. We will rise with a new spirit to ignite awareness in this whole country," said Mohamed Ezam as nearly 400 people thumped tables and shouted "Reformasi," the battle cry for reform.

CNN State Department Producer Elise Labott, CNN Correspondent Lisa Barron, CNN Correspondent Kasra Naji, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.