PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia: Malaysia’s highest court on Tuesday upheld a sodomy conviction and five-year jail term for Anwar Ibrahim, throwing the opposition leader’s political future into peril with a decision that he angrily denounced as a conspiracy.
Chief Justice Arifin Zakaria dismissed Anwar’s challenge against last year’s conviction for sodomising a young male former aide, saying the court found “overwhelming evidence” of the crime.
Sodomy is punishable by up to 20 years in prison in Muslim majority Malaysia and Anwar was expected to begin his sentence immediately.
Arifin read his judgments out to a stunned courtroom packed with journalists, opposition figures, and Anwar’s family and supporters, many of whom wept quietly.
Anwar later took to the dock and attacked the Federal Court panel of justices for taking part in a “political conspiracy” by Malaysia’s ruling regime.
“In bowing to the dictates of your political masters, you have become partners to the crime,” he said.
“You have chosen to be on the dark side.”
Angered, the judges abruptly got up to leave, with Anwar shouting at them as they exited.
“I will not be silenced! I will never surrender!”
Government critics say the case is part of a long-running campaign to destroy Anwar, a former deputy premier who was ousted from the ruling party in the late 1990s and later helped unite a previously divided and hapless opposition into a formidable force.
– ‘Day of infamy’ –
“It’s a day of infamy. It’s a shocking decision,” senior opposition parliamentarian Lim Kit Siang said.
The decision is a heavy blow to both Anwar and the opposition.
Now 67, Anwar might not emerge from prison until the age of 72 if he serves the full term.
The decision strips Anwar of his parliamentary seat and disqualifies him from running in the next elections due by 2018.
Several prominent legal observers had said they felt that Anwar’s defence had successfully raised sufficient reasonable doubt over the charge that he sodomised Mohamad Saiful Bukhari Azlan in 2008.
Human Rights Watch condemned the case as “politically motivated” persecution.
“Allowing this travesty of justice to stand will further undermine respect for rights and democracy in Malaysia,” the group’s Asia director Phil Robertson said.
Hundreds of Anwar supporters had gathered outside the court since before the ruling, chanting “Reformasi!” the longtime clarion call of the movement to unseat the country’s 58-year-old government, and “Free Anwar!”.
They were watched warily by a security cordon around the court building manned by scores of police, as mounted police on horseback also patrolled.
There were no immediate signs of unrest.
It marks the second sodomy conviction for Anwar in a career marked by sharp ups and downs.
He was a popular top leader of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) until his sensational ouster in a bitter 1998 power struggle.
Arrested and beaten by police, his spent six years in prison on earlier sodomy and corruption charges.
The case was widely viewed as tainted by politics and the sodomy conviction was eventually thrown out.
– ‘Overwhelming evidence’ –
With Anwar now leading the opposition, its three-party coalition has threatened to unseat UMNO, one of the world’s longest-ruling governments.
But the alliance is flirting with possible break up over deep policy and personality differences, and Anwar’s removal from the fray could sow further disarray.
UMNO has a history of using police and judicial organs to pressure opponents.
The current charges were filed in 2008 shortly after Anwar led the opposition to the first of two historic general election showings.
He was acquitted in 2012, but an appeals court controversially overturned that last March, convicting Anwar and sentencing him to five years. He had been free pending his own appeal until Tuesday’s ruling.
“We have overwhelming evidence that (Saiful) was sodomised,” Arifin said in his judgement.
He also said Anwar’s allegations of a political conspiracy “remain unsubstantiated”.
Malaysia’s handling of the case has drawn international criticism, including from the United States, which has said it raised concerns over the rule of law.
UMNO has dominated multi-ethnic Malaysia since independence in 1957.
But Anwar’s opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Pact) alliance nearly took power in 2013 elections on pledges to dismantle UMNO’s authoritarian rule and crony capitalism, and to reform discriminatory policies favouring the ethnic Malay majority.