KUALA LUMPUR - US National Security Adviser Susan Rice on Monday met Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and expressed concern at a sodomy conviction against him that is widely seen as politically motivated.
Wrapping up a US visit to Malaysia led by President Barack Obama, Ms Rice also called on the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak to ensure the rule of law in the country.
"Ambassador Rice emphasised to Mr Anwar that the United States has followed his case closely, and that the decision to prosecute him and the trial have raised a number of concerns regarding the rule of law and the independence of the courts," a White House statement said after their meeting in Kuala Lumpur.
Anwar released a statement after the meeting, saying he told Ms Rice that US-Malaysia ties should include not just trade and security and other traditional issues but also "human rights, good governance and democracy".
Anwar was convicted and sentenced to five years in jail on March 7 on charges that he sodomised a former aide. He is free pending an appeal. Anwar says the charge is false and part of a long-running government campaign to smear his name with charges of sodomy, which is illegal in Muslim-majority Malaysia.
Ms Rice also said during the meeting that it was "critical for Malaysia to apply the rule of law fairly, transparently, and apolitically in order to promote confidence in Malaysia's democracy and judiciary".
Mr Obama left Malaysia on Monday morning for the Philippines as part of an Asian tour that also took him to Japan and South Korea. The president nudged Mr Najib in a joint press briefing on Sunday to ensure rights were protected, but also indicated the issue was unlikely to stand in the way of US plans to improve ties with Malaysia. Mr Obama is keen to shore up US engagement with a region in which China's increasing assertiveness is causing growing alarm.
The US administration raised eyebrows by leaving Anwar off Mr Obama's list of appointments. But the president said sending his senior foreign policy official to the meeting signalled the importance he attached to it.
Malaysia's ruling regime has kept a tight grip on power for decades, often jailing or pressuring opponents with court charges. Critics say it has launched a clampdown on rights and free expression since Anwar's opposition won the popular vote in elections last year for the first time.
Mr Najib retained power due in part to an electoral system favouring his coalition.