Will Sodomy Charges End Malaysia’s Opposition?

On Tuesday, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, a little more than a decade after he was arrested, beaten and jailed on sodomy charges, walked into a Kuala Lumpur courtroom to face the same charges once again. In August, the government charged the politician with sodomy for the second time in his career, in this case, with a 23-year-old former aide, Saiful Bukhari Azlan. Under Malaysian law, consensual sodomy or sex acts “against the order of nature,” as it is described in the law here, is punishable with up to 20 years in jail.

By Baradan Kuppusamy (Time)

“I don’t believe in this charge at all,” Aziz Maanan, a 36-year-old food vendor, says as he prepares double-layered, toasted roti at a night market in Kuala Lumpur. “They are all afraid of [Anwar] because if he wins and becomes Prime Minister, they will all end up in jail.”

Whatever the word on the street in the Malaysian capital may be, the government denies any political motivation for the charges, saying Anwar committed a crime and must face criminal trial. Saiful, who was taken into protective police custody after he first made the allegation on June 26, 2008, has not been charged in the alleged act, and has written on his blog that he can’t wait to confront Anwar in court. “I have waited for justice and hope to finally get it,” he wrote in a recent posting.

Anwar, for his part, has always maintained his innocence. “It is a sad day for the country. Let’s hope justice will prevail,” Anwar said as he entered the packed courtroom on Tuesday morning with his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and key political allies, including the venerated Muslim cleric Nik Aziz Nik Mat. In January, Anwar took his case to the people, holding rallies around the country where he claimed that the new sodomy charges had been trumped up to stop him from running for Prime Minister in the upcoming general election, an accusation the government denies. Though plenty of constituents like Aziz Maanan support him, the reception Anwar got from Muslim-majority Malays was not so warm. Anwar steadfastly supports a Dec. 31 court ruling that Christians can legally use the word Allah to refer to their own God. The aftermath of the ruling saw at least 11 churches and several mosques attacked and desecrated.

This is the third time that Anwar will face trial on criminal charges. In 1999, he was sentenced to prison for corruption, which was quickly followed by sodomy charges in 2000, of which he was also found guilty but later acquitted in 2004. Some of the key players in that case figure again in the current trial, which started on Tuesday with preliminary arguments after a delay of nearly 16 months. The 63-year-old politician will once again face Gani Patail, the lawyer who prosecuted him in 1998 and is now Attorney General, as well as Musa Hassan, the man who investigated the first case and is now Inspector General of Police. Anwar has accused both men of fabricating evidence against him, charges they strenuously deny.

Anwar has vowed to topple the current Prime Minister, Najib Razak, who took office in April last year, in the next general election, which is widely expected to be held next year. His defense plans to subpoena Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor, alleging that the couple met with Saiful before the aide made the allegation against the Prime Minister’s opponent.

Anwar has dominated Malaysian politics for more than four decades — first as a student leader in the 1970s and then as a rising minister in the government of Mahathir Mohamad. Eventually, as a powerful and charismatic Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar was poised to unseat Mahathir and take the reins of government when he was cut down in the fallout over how to tackle the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. As a prisoner, Anwar continued to influence national politics, turning his plight into a global cause, forming a multiracial political party and putting together an opposition coalition — all from behind bars.

And though he is no stranger to scandal, this trial, many say, may well be terminal for Anwar’s ambition to become Prime Minister, derailing his sterling comeback and damaging the chances of the multiethnic, broadly secular Pakatan Rakyat coalition he leads. “In short, this is a make-or-break event for Anwar,” political scientist Sivamurugan Pandyan tells TIME. “Everything is at stake … his ambitions to become Prime Minister, his political career, the future of his Pakatan Rakyat. It’s over for Anwar if he is found guilty and jailed even a few years.”

By most counts, Malaysia, too, goes on trial on Tuesday. The judiciary, which was showing some independence in recent years, has come under attack again for bias and for pandering to political masters. Neither the Attorney General nor the police are widely seen as independent or impartial institutions, and opposition lawmakers constantly accuse them of selective persecution. Ramon Navaratnam, former president of Transparency International, says most Malaysians are against the trial and against charging Anwar with sodomy. “The public perception is that the trial is politically motivated,” Navaratnam tells TIME. “Most people think this trial is unnecessary and it is selective persecution.” Malaysian Bar Council president Ragunath Kesavan says it is unfair to prejudge the judiciary. “The trial just started, and I can’t say for sure whether Anwar will get a fair trial or not. We have to wait and see.” Anwar’s political ally veteran lawmaker Lim Kit Siang, who was first elected to parliament in 1969, says the charges are political and nothing else. “They want to bury him,” he says. “The Pakatan Rakyat might be badly hurt by this, but we will soldier on.”

Since Saiful publicly accused his former boss of sexual misconduct, the growing momentum that Anwar had enjoyed in the aftermath of the 2008 general-election victories, in which his coalition won five states and took 82 seats in the 222-seat parliament, has been gradually dissipating. The Pakatan Rakyat coalition formed in that cycle has been hit by defections, internal squabbles and major differences over how to treat Islam, Malay special privileges and, more recently, the Allah issue. The differences are shattering unity in the coalition. Prime Minister Najib, who still enjoys majority Malay support, is on a major charm offensive to steal away the minority Chinese and Indian voters — who together are 35% of the electorate of 13.7 million voters — who supported Anwar in 2008. “Najib is winning the hearts and minds of the people with his campaign,” says Pandyan, referring to the “We Are One Malaysia” campaign, which is based on mending the nation’s fractured race relations.