Profile: Anwar Ibrahim

(BBC) – Anwar Ibrahim is well aware of the perils and pitfalls of Malaysian political life. Once the deputy prime minister and tipped for the country’s highest office, he fell out with top leaders and was beaten, jailed and disgraced.

Released from prison, he emerged as the de facto head of a newly invigorated opposition and appeared poised to challenge the ruling coalition’s 50-year hold on power.

Then new – yet familiar – claims against him were made, setting the stage for fresh political turmoil.

Now a court is set to rule, once again, on charges of sodomy against him.

Sexual misconduct

Massive street demonstrations took place in 1999 when Mr Anwar was jailed for abuse of power.

Just a year earlier, his star had appeared to be in the ascendant. He was widely expected to succeed then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad.

But there were growing tensions between the two men, particularly over economic policy and, in September 1998, Mr Anwar found himself sacked and arrested over allegations of sexual misconduct.

The trial which followed led to a six-year jail term for corruption. In 2000 he was found guilty on a second charge, of sodomy with his wife’s driver, and jailed for a further nine years, to be served concurrently with his other sentence.

Mr Anwar opposed both convictions, supported by his wife – politician Wan Azizah Wan Ismail – and a hardcore of supporters. In late 2004 Malaysia’s Supreme Court overturned the sodomy conviction, freeing him from jail.

Although banned from politics until April 2008, Mr Anwar emerged as the de facto opposition leader – acting as a unifying figure for Malaysia’s diverse political groups.

Unprecedented gains

And as Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s popularity plummeted over ethnic tensions, inflation and corruption gripes, the opposition began to look like more of a credible force.

Elections in March 2008 confirmed the shift. The ruling coalition saw its worst results in 50 years, while the opposition made unprecedented gains. The government had never looked weaker – or the opposition forces stronger.

Mr Anwar said he had enough lawmakers to topple the government and that he was waiting for the right moment.

Then new – but familiar – allegations emerged against him. A 23-year-old former aide accused him of sodomy.

Once again Mr Anwar denies the claims, saying they are part of a government conspiracy to undermine his increasingly strong opposition alliance.

“There is no basis for this whole fabrication and malicious attacks. It is just a repeat of the 1998 script. You can see the pattern,” he told reporters soon after the accusations came to light.

The trial has taken two years – and the verdict comes ahead of another election expected in the coming months.

Radical Islam

Even despite the allegations against him, Mr Anwar cuts a controversial figure.

To his backers, including many supporters in the international community, he is the leading force for reform in Malaysia.

The cries of “reformasi” on the streets of Kuala Lumpur following his first arrest, and his courting of the international media during his time as Mahathir’s deputy, led many in the West to portray Mr Anwar as an Asian renaissance man, leading the charge against a corrupt “ancien regime”.

But many Malaysians, particularly non-Muslims, see it quite differently, pointing to Mr Anwar’s political roots in radical Islam.

He made his name as a student leader, defacing English language signs at the University of Malaya and founding Malaysia’s Islamic youth movement, ABIM.

Many local Chinese people, who make up the largest ethnic group after the Muslim Malays, doubt that Mr Anwar has left his radical Islamic roots far behind.

Mr Anwar maintains that he is a unifying figure, not a divisive one. But he remains a restive presence on Malaysia’s political stage.