Malaysia opens final hearings in contentious Anwar case

PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia - A Malaysian 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 overturned in March by an appeals court, which convicted him.

A panel of justices with Malaysia's Federal Court, the country's highest, is to hear Anwar's challenge to the conviction. The government also is seeking to lengthen the five-year sentence he was hit with.

Rulings are expected on Wednesday.

"We have a strong case," Anwar told reporters as he entered the court, which was ringed by about 200 armed police and steel security barricades, in a sign of the case's political sensitivity.

"I hope I will be vindicated and acquitted by the highest court in the land tomorrow." Anwar, 67, says the charges are part of a long-running plot by the country's authoritarian regime to ruin his career - and cripple the fast-rising opposition - by repeatedly tarring him with spurious charges of sodomy, which is illegal in Muslim-majority Malaysia.

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

He was released after six years, when that earlier sodomy charge was thrown out.

The affair sparked massive anti-government demonstrations, galvanising an opposition movement that, under Anwar's charismatic leadership, has since pushed once-invincible UMNO to the wall.

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

UMNO retained power thanks to what critics call decades of parliamentary gerrymandering.

The latest case against Anwar has been roundly condemned.

The US State Department said his March conviction "raised a number of concerns regarding the rule of law and the independence of the court".

The International Federation for Human Rights, which groups 178 member-organisations worldwide, on Monday called this week's hearing "a decisive test for Malaysia's judiciary".

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

But a new multi-racial generation of voters, impatient with UMNO's tight grip, has increasingly deserted the regime.

Another jailing poses a dire threat to Anwar's political career, just as his broad appeal is needed most amid rising tension between the three diverse parties in the opposition alliance.