Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim began a 5-year prison sentence on Tuesday after a court rejected his final appeal against a sodomy conviction, a decision he called a "murder of judicial independence" and human rights groups condemned as unjust.
The case was widely seen at home and abroad as politically motivated to eliminate any threats to the ruling coalition, whose popularity has slowly been eroding since 2008 after more than five decades of unquestioned dominance. Anwar is the most popular, vocal and visible symbol of the opposition's resurgence and had become a potent political threat to Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Police led Anwar out of the court to start serving his sentence.
"I have to go. Time's up," the 67-year-old politician told his supporters inside the court. "I will miss you all," he said, bowing to them before walking out.
Anwar was accused of sodomizing Saiful Bukhari Azlan, then 23, who was working as a lowly aide in the opposition campaign office in 2008.
Homosexuality is a crime in Muslim-majority Malaysia and is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and by whipping, although prosecutions are rare.
Anwar was acquitted by the High Court in 2012 but the Appeals Court overturned the acquittal in March last year and sentenced him to five years in prison. Anwar appealed in Federal Court, which in its ruling Tuesday said there was "overwhelming evidence" to support the conviction.
"It is beyond reasonable doubt that (Saiful) was sodomized by the appellant. The appeal is dismissed," said Justice Arifin Zakaria, who read the verdict for two hours on behalf of the five-judge panel.
Saiful maintained that he submitted to sodomy because he was afraid of Anwar.
Now 30, Saiful has married and has a son. He said on his blog Tuesday he is thankful for the judgment and that it proved the court found him a credible witness. "What is important is that I and my family can now move forward," he wrote.
The verdict brought forth a torrent of criticism from local and international human rights groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Federation for Human Rights. They called the verdict "disgraceful," a "black day" and "totally unjust."
In Washington, the White House issued a statement saying the United States "is deeply disappointed with Mr. Anwar's conviction" and that the trial "raised a number of serious concerns about rule of law and the fairness of the judicial system in Malaysia."
Malaysian human rights group Suaram said the political nature of the trial was apparent from the fact that Saiful had met with the prime minister and senior officials before making a police complaint, medical records had shown no penetration, and one of Anwar's lawyers was charged twice with sedition for criticizing the Appeals Court judgment.
"The Federal Court's verdict is the disgraceful conclusion of a relentless judicial campaign against Anwar Ibrahim. Malaysia's judiciary failed to demonstrate its independence from the executive branch in a trial that had clear political motivations," International Federation for Human Rights President Karim Lahidji said.
The Federal Court said Anwar's allegation that the case was a political conspiracy "remains an allegation, unsubstantiated by any facts whatsoever." It also rejected the defense argument that the semen samples taken from Saiful's body were tampered with by police.
Addressing the judges from the dock after the verdict, Anwar said, "You have become partners in crime in the murder of judicial independence," prompting them to get up and walk out of the room, with Justice Arifin heard saying, "I don't need to hear all this."
Anwar, however, continued speaking from the dock. "Allah be my witness. I pledge that I will not be silenced. I will fight on for freedom and justice. I will never surrender."
"I maintain my innocence. This to me is a fabrication coming from a political conspiracy to stop my political career," he said.
As the last words of the verdict were read out, Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, burst into tears. Anwar hugged and consoled her before turning to his children and grandchildren. He smiled and hugged them too.
Watched by about 300 policemen, hundreds of his supporters gathered peacefully outside the imposing court building in Putrajaya, the administrative capital of Malaysia.
The verdict is the "death of justice. We will keep on fighting for a better Malaysia. We won't give up," said supporter Tey Khang Fai, 33.
In an apparently pre-written statement released minutes after the verdict, the Prime Minister's Office said Anwar's case has gone through an exhaustive legal process, and that the case was brought by an individual, not the government.
"The process is now complete and we call on all parties to respect the legal process and judgment. ... Malaysia has an independent judiciary, and there have been many rulings against senior government figures," it said.
Anwar previously was imprisoned for six years after being ousted as deputy prime minister in 1998 on earlier charges of sodomizing his former family driver and abusing his power. He was freed in 2004 after Malaysia's top court quashed that sodomy conviction. That case was also widely seen as politically motivated, as it came at a time when he was locked in a power struggle with then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Anwar said his jailing for a second time would be toughest on his family, but that they were all very supportive.
Instead of breaking up his three-party alliance, he warned Najib on Monday that jailing him could backfire and galvanize more support for the opposition.
His wife Wan Azizah, who is also president of his National Justice Party, told reporters Tuesday that his imprisonment "has given us more reason to continue our fight. It will not break our spirit nor weaken our struggle."
Bridget Welsh, a senior research associate at National Taiwan University, said the opposition alliance will have difficulty choosing a new leader because of growing ideological differences.
"It's going to be a struggle for the alliance but it will not crumble. Ironically, Anwar's jailing has now given them common ground. It will be difficult for a short time but it will bring them together," she said.
Anwar led his alliance to unprecedented gains in 2008 elections and made further inroads in 2013 polls. Najib's National Front coalition won with a slimmer majority and lost the popular vote to the opposition.
Associated Press journalists Paul Joshua and Vincent Thian in Putrajaya and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.