Malaysia braces for verdict in Anwar sodomy trial

(AFP) – Malaysia braced Monday for a verdict in the politically charged sodomy trial of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, whose supporters have vowed to bring thousands onto the streets of the capital.

The judge in the nearly two-year trial that riveted Malaysia and sparked charges of a government set-up to cripple the Anwar-led opposition was to announce the eagerly awaited verdict sometime after 9 a.m. (0100 GMT).

It is the second sodomy verdict in a dozen years for Anwar, a former deputy premier in the 1990s who was next in line to head the country’s long-ruling government until a spectacular downfall.

The charismatic Anwar had been groomed to succeed former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad until a bitter row between them saw Anwar ousted in 1998, beaten and jailed on sodomy and graft charges widely seen as politically motivated.

Once the sodomy charge was overturned in 2004 and he was released, the affair threw Anwar into the opposition, which he led to unprecedented gains against his former ruling party in 2008 general elections.

But new sodomy charges emerged shortly after those polls — Anwar is accused of sodomising a former male aide — sparking accusations they were concocted by the ruling United Malays National Organisation to stall the opposition revival.

Sodomy is illegal in Muslim-majority Malaysia and punishable by 20 years in jail.

Anwar, who toured the country over the past week to assert his innocence, told AFP Sunday he was mentally braced for a guilty verdict, which is widely expected, but feared the rigours of prison.

“Mentally, I am OK. I am psychologically prepared (for a guilty verdict),” said Anwar.

“Physically, of course, I am 64… my health conditions are, of course, not as great as when I was at the age of 50.”

Anwar had emerged from his previous jailing in frail health and took considerable time to recover.

About 500 people including family members joined Anwar at his Kuala Lumpur home on Sunday for two hours of prayers.

Tensions were on the rise in Kuala Lumpur, with the opposition saying it plans to gather 100,000 people outside the court where judge Mohamad Zabidin Diah will issue his verdict.

Thousands took to the streets after Anwar’s ouster in the 1990s, but he said supporters were being urged to assemble peacefully and disperse quickly after the verdict.

Police, who squelched a rally for electoral reform in July with tear gas and water cannons, have given their consent to the rally, provided it does not get out of hand.

“I do not anticipate any violence tomorrow,” Anwar said Sunday, adding that voters should take any revenge at the ballot box only.

The verdict comes at a pivotal time, with Prime Minister Najib Razak due to call new elections by early next year.

But many analysts believe the expected guilty verdict could boost the opposition.

It would “invariably lend credence to the opposition?s claims that the charges and trial were politically motivated and orchestrated,” said an analysis by the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

“It is hard to see how sentencing Anwar to prison would benefit the ruling party,” it said.

At any rate, Malaysian legal experts say Anwar has the right to stand in any upcoming elections until the appeal process is exhausted.