PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia, Feb. 10 – Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim alleged a “political conspiracy” as he was sent to jail Tuesday after his appeal against a sodomy conviction was rejected, likely spelling the end of his career.
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. Anwar was taken from the court in the afternoon to begin his sentence.
Arifin read his judgement out to a stunned courtroom packed with opposition figures, journalists and Anwar’s family and supporters, many of whom wept quietly.
Anwar later took to the dock to launch a scathing attack on the Federal Court panel of justices, accusing them of collusion in a “political conspiracy” by Malaysia’s now 58-year-old 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.”
“I will not be silenced! I will never surrender!” Anwar shouted at the judges as they abruptly got up to leave.
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 ruling 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. He is also stripped of his parliament seat and disqualified from running in the next elections, due by 2018.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has previously admitted meeting Anwar’s accuser, Mohamad Saiful Bukhari Azlan, in 2008 just before the charges were filed, but he denies orchestrating the case.
A statement by his office after the ruling insisted the judiciary was independent.
“The judges will have reached their verdict only after considering all the evidence in a balanced and objective manner,” it said
“That process is now complete, and we call on all parties involved to respect the legal process and the judgement.”
But Human Rights Watch condemned the case as part of a rapidly deteriorating rights situation that has seen the government launch a crackdown on free speech, calling it a “travesty of justice.”
Amnesty International called it “an oppressive ruling that will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.”
Hundreds of Anwar supporters became locked in a tense standoff with riot police near the court after the ruling, but the confrontation appeared to be easing.
It is the second disputed 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 that saw him arrested and jailed for six years on previous sodomy and corruption charges.
The case was widely viewed as tainted by politics, and the sodomy conviction was eventually thrown out.
– ‘Overwhelming evidence’ –
Later joining the opposition, Anwar has led a three-party alliance to the brink of ousting UMNO, one of the world’s longest-ruling parties.
The alliance risks falling apart over deep policy and personality differences, however, and sidelining Anwar could sow further disarray.
But analysts say jailing Anwar also bears risks for Najib’s regime, which lost the popular vote in 2013 elections, clinging to power only through gerrymandering.
“Few inside (UMNO’s) system fully appreciate that jail time will make Anwar a martyr for a new generation, rally his supporters at home and abroad and signal the weakness of (Najib’s) government in its need to remove an opponent,” Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia politics analyst with National Taiwan University, wrote in a recent essay.
UMNO has a history of using police and judicial organs to pressure opponents, and the current charges were filed in 2008 shortly after the first of two historic, Anwar-led opposition election showings.
Arifin said the court found Saiful’s account “credible”.
“We have overwhelming evidence that (Saiful) was sodomised,” he said, adding that allegations of a political conspiracy “remain unsubstantiated”.
But Malaysia’s handling of the case has drawn international criticism, including from the United States, which has said it raised rule-of-law concerns.
UMNO has dominated multi-ethnic Malaysia since independence in 1957, but has rapidly lost ground to the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Pact) alliance, which vows to dismantle UMNO’s authoritarian rule and crony capitalism, and to reform discriminatory policies favouring the ethnic Malay majority.