'Decisive test' as Malaysia opens final Anwar hearings

'Decisive test' as Malaysia opens final Anwar hearings
Malaysian Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim (C) gestures as he walk with his wife Wan Azizah (back) towards his supporter before entering the court in Putrajaya on October 28, 2014.

PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia - Malaysia's highest court on Tuesday opened two days of hearings expected to produce a final ruling on much-criticised sodomy charges against Anwar Ibrahim that could send the opposition leader to jail.

Anwar was cleared in 2012 of charges he sodomised a young former male aide four years earlier, but that acquittal was controversially reversed in March by an appeals court, which convicted him.

Anwar, 67, is appealing the conviction, while the government is simultaneously seeking to lengthen his five-year prison sentence. Rulings are expected Wednesday.

"I do not want to go jail but if I am forced to, I will go fighting a corrupt government," Anwar tweeted as the hearings got under way at the Federal Court, which was ringed by about 200 armed police and steel security barricades.

"If this is my last service to Malaysians, to the young, then this is my small sacrifice." If jailed, Anwar would lose his parliament seat.

Anwar calls the charges part of a long-running conspiracy by the authoritarian regime to ruin his career - and cripple the fast-rising opposition - by repeatedly tarring him with false charges of sodomy, which is illegal in Muslim-majority Malaysia.

'Decisive test'

The International Federation for Human Rights, which groups 178 member-organisations, called the hearings "a decisive test for Malaysia's judiciary" and called for a just ruling free of political interference.

A popular former deputy premier, Anwar was sensationally ousted from the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) in a 1998 power struggle and jailed on a previous sodomy and corruption conviction widely seen as trumped up.

He was released six years later when the sodomy conviction was dismissed.

Anwar's downfall sparked massive anti-government demonstrations and an opposition movement that, under his charismatic leadership, has pushed once-invincible UMNO to the wall.

Promising to end corruption, crony capitalism, and UMNO's divisive racial politics, a three-party opposition coalition won a majority of votes cast in elections last year in the multi-ethnic country.

UMNO retained parliamentary power thanks to decades of gerrymandering.

The US State Department said Anwar's March conviction raised concerns over rule of law and judicial independence.

UMNO has governed since independence in 1957, bringing decades of rapid economic development under an authoritarian formula that reserves political primacy for the Muslim ethnic-Malay majority.

But a multi-racial new generation of voters has increasingly deserted the regime.

Jailing Anwar would remove the opposition's talisman just as the diverse coalition faces growing rifts.

Huge anti-government demonstrations have been held in recent years, some ending in violent police crackdowns, but Anwar has not directly called for protests if jailed.

Hundreds of pro-Anwar and pro-government demonstrators gathered outside the court Tuesday but the situation was calm.

The opposition's success in recent years has triggered rising political tensions, with Muslim conservatives ratcheting up rhetoric against a perceived threat posed by the multi-faith opposition to Islam's leading role.

Prime Minister Najib Razak's government also is waging a crackdown - via Malaysia's sedition law - on the opposition and other critics, drawing criticism from international rights groups, UN human rights experts, and the US embassy.

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