Malaysia's opposition leader prepares for sodomy trial – again

Anwar Ibrahim, who heads an increasingly popular alliance, says the charges are meant to check his rise to power.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim arrives at a court in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Wednesday.
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Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim appeared in a courtroom Wednesday over charges of sodomy in a virtual rerun of a politically charged prosecution that cut short his career a decade ago. The latest case has gripped a divided country and fanned concerns about the impartiality of its justice system.

Mr. Anwar, a former deputy prime minister, has denied the charges. His lawyers are seeking to dismiss the case on the basis of medical examinations of his accuser, a former male aide. On Wednesday, they filed a pretrial application for the prosecution to turn over additional evidence to the defence. The hearing resumes Thursday.

In an earlier interview, Anwar accused the government of trying to smear his reputation and predicted that it would fail. "I think it's going to be tough for them. We're going all out to fight it politically," he says.

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The drama over the personal life of a high flier who has courted powerful friends in Asia, the Middle East, and the West, including former United States Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, is a familiar one for Malaysia.

In 1998, Anwar was sacked and charged with sodomy and corruption after he defied former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, whom he was expected to succeed. He was later convicted of both offenses and served six years in jail before being freed on appeal in 2004. He has always denied the accusations.

Since then, Anwar has emerged as leader of a resurgent opposition that has slashed the majority of Malaysia's ruling coalition, led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), and won control of four statehouses. He argues that the latest sodomy charges are a deliberate attempt to check his rise to power. If found guilty, he could face up to 20 years in jail and would have to resign his seat.

The latest case has stirred anger and incredulity among Anwar's supporters. In 1998, tens of thousands protested in the streets against his jailing. Only a handful of people showed up during Wednesday's hearing, but the numbers are likely to swell as the trial progresses.

Anwar leads the People's Alliance, a fractious group of ethnic-based parties that relies heavily on his popularity and ability to reach across social lines. The trial is bound to distract him from his leadership role, even if he eventually beats the charges, says Liew Chin Tong, a lawmaker from the Democratic Action Party, which belongs to the alliance.

A guilty verdict would be a setback for the opposition, but Mr. Liew argues that it wouldn't be the end. "If he goes to jail, the opposition would survive ... we're much more prepared than we were 10 years ago," he says.

Sodomy is illegal in Malaysia, a majority-Muslim country. Prosecutors initially charged Anwar with raping the former aide, but changed it to consensual sex. Photos were later posted online of the aide posing with senior members of the UMNO, including Prime Minister Najib Razak, who took office in April.

Opinion polls suggest Mr. Najib has begun to rebuild support for the UMNO-led ruling coalition. He recently promised to dismantle some of the decades-old economic privileges for Malays and other indigenous groups that have alienated ethnic minorities and become a drag on a slowing economy.

But Najib's gains in popularity may take a hit if his government is tarnished by Anwar's trial. Few Malaysians seem to believe that the prosecution acted independently, given the echoes of the last trial.

Some Malaysian legal experts have criticized the basis of the trial and complained of an increasingly politicized judiciary and police force under UMNO's thumb. They question the neutrality of Attorney General Abdul Gani, who is currently under investigation for allegedly covering up an assault by police on Anwar in 1998.

"The trial will show what we know already: there is no justice in Malaysia," says Malik Imtiaz Sawar, a civil rights lawyer.

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