KUALA LUMPUR - Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said on Wednesday that any move to jail him next week on controversial sodomy charges could backfire against the Malaysian government.
The nation's highest court is to deliver a final decision Tuesday on Anwar's appeal against a sodomy conviction and five-year jail term handed down last year.
A guilty verdict could effectively end the 67-year-old's career, removing the key player in a opposition coalition that has one of the world's longest-ruling governments on the run.
"That to my mind is for sure," Anwar said, when asked whether jailing him would turn him into a martyr and drive yet more support to the opposition.
"Throughout history, (persecuting political opponents) has always backfired." "Will this lead to further disgruntlement and therefore a surge in support (for the opposition)? I believe so," he told members of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Malaysia.
Anwar stopped short of calling on supporters to take to the streets.
Anwar has long dismissed the charge that he sodomised a young male former aide. He calls it part of a long-running effort by the 58-year-old government to kill his political career and decapitate the opposition.
Anwar said he was "cautiously optimistic" about the court decision, adding his lawyers had thoroughly disproved the charge in appeal hearings before the Federal Court late last year.
He was convicted of sodomy last March for the second time in his tumultuous political career.
In the 1990s Anwar was a rising star in the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the main party in the ruling coalition.
But a power struggle with then-premier Mahathir Mohamad ended in 1998 with Anwar purged. He was later jailed for six years on sodomy and corruption charges widely seen as politically motivated.
That jailing triggered the nation's biggest-ever anti-government protests.
The sodomy charge was later dismissed.
Sodomy is illegal in the Muslim-majority country, which frowns on homosexual relations.
Joining the opposition after his release, Anwar has led it to unprecedented electoral gains in the multiracial country with pledges to end corruption, civil liberties abuses and UMNO's racially divisive politics.
A lower court initially acquitted Anwar of the second sodomy charge in 2012. But the government appealed and won last year, a result that the US State Department said raised doubts about the rule of law.