KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim finds out Tuesday whether he will be jailed for five years on a controversial sodomy conviction that threatens his political career and the historic rise of the opposition bloc he energised.
The nation’s highest court is expected to convene around 9:00 am (0100 GMT) to announce its decision in Anwar’s appeal against the conviction handed down last March.
If the appeal to the Federal Court fails, Anwar, 67, will be jailed for sodomy for the second time in his volatile political career and might not emerge from prison until the age of 72.
The opposition calls the case part of a long-running campaign by the government to harass Anwar, a former top official who was ousted in the late 1990s and later helped unite a previously divided and hapless opposition into a formidable force.
With Anwar leading, the three-party opposition alliance has threatened to unseat the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), one of the world’s longest-ruling governments.
But the alliance is flirting with possible break-up over deep political and personality differences, and Anwar’s removal could sow further disarray.
“I am cautiously optimistic, based on the facts, the law and the evidence,” Anwar said last week of the coming ruling.
A popular former deputy prime minister in the UMNO administration, Anwar was sensationally ousted in a bitter 1998 power struggle, beaten by police and jailed for six years on past sodomy and corruption charges.
The case was widely viewed as politically motivated, and the sodomy conviction was eventually thrown out.
Many legal observers believe that, in hearings late last year before the Federal Court, Anwar’s defence successfully debunked the charge of sodomising his former young male aide, Mohamad Saiful Bukhari Azlan, in 2008.
But some fear politics could influence the decision and opinions are split on how it will turn out.
UMNO has a history of rough tactics towards opponents and using police and judicial organs to keep them under pressure.
“The case is political, and it is aimed at removing Anwar as a political force in Malaysia,” said John Malott, who was US ambassador to Malaysia during Anwar’s fall from grace in the late 1990s.
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.
The overturning of the acquittal came just as Anwar was angling to become chief minister of Malaysia’s richest state — which would have given him a powerful political boost — raising suspicions of government interference in the case.
The ruling scuppered Anwar’s plans and drew international criticism, including from the United States.
If guilty, Anwar would lose his parliament seat and be disqualified from the next elections, due by 2018.
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, pledging to dismantle UMNO’s authoritarian rule and crony capitalism, and to reform discriminatory policies favouring the ethnic Malay majority.
Several political analysts said jailing Anwar could backfire on UMNO, making a martyr of him and further turning voters against it.