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Anwar Supporters Rally in Malaysia Ahead of Sodomy Verdict

Thousands of supporters of Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim rallied outside of Kuala Lumpur’s High Court today chanting for justice ahead of a court verdict that could prevent the politician from contesting in the country’s next general election.

Judge Mohamad Zabidin Mohd Diah is due to rule whether Anwar, who led the opposition to take control of five of Malaysia’s 13 states in 2008, is guilty of sodomizing a former aide more than three years ago. If convicted and fined more than 2,000 ringgit ($636) or jailed for more than 12 months, the 64-year-old would be disqualified from running for parliament in national polls due to be held by June 2013, Law Professor Shad Saleem Faruqi said.

“My body may be in prison, but my soul is still free,” Anwar told an outdoor rally in Kuala Lumpur last night. “Tomorrow, I will say my morning prayers, and kiss all of my family.”

Kuala Lumpur police chief Mohmad Salleh gave permission last week for Anwar supporters to hold a peaceful rally today in the court’s car park after meeting Azmin Ali, deputy president of Anwar’s People’s Justice Party. Conditions were placed on the organizers, including bans on public speaking, “Free Anwar” banners and loud hailers except for managing the crowd, according to the police’s Facebook page.

Early Start

More than 2,000 people had gathered outside the court by 7.45 a.m. local time with some arriving as early as 5 a.m., according to Bloomberg reporters at the scene. They carried banners while chanting for justice and political reform.

Sodomy is illegal in Muslim-majority Malaysia, even between two consenting men. The charge could bring a sentence of as much as 20 years in prison. Anwar didn’t run in the March 2008 national poll because an earlier corruption and sodomy and convictions barred him from holding office until April of that year.

The opposition chief, now an MP, faced similar allegations in 1998 when he was sacked by then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad as his deputy. Anwar was sentenced to nine years in jail for sodomy and a separate corruption charge, before being released in 2004 after Malaysia’s highest court overturned the sex conviction.

His latest two-year trial has been criticized by outside observers as politically motivated. A conviction may heighten scrutiny of Malaysia’s judicial system, with Human Rights Watch saying last month the sodomy law has been used to slander the government’s opponents.

Unifying Force

Today’s sentence will also dictate Anwar’s role in the election process, potentially removing a figure that has united a diverse opposition if he is jailed.

The People’s Alliance opposition coalition led by Anwar is comprised of his People’s Justice Party, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party and the Democratic Action Party. Some Pan-Malaysian members espouse the implementation of Islamic law, while the Democratic Action Party’s secretary-general is Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, Malaysia’s only ethnic-Chinese state leader.

“A guilty verdict would deprive the fractious opposition coalition of Anwar’s unifying influence,” Johannes Lund, an analyst at Control Risks said by e-mail ahead of the verdict. “Anwar is likely to remain a key opposition figure, though his leadership capacity will be limited should he be imprisoned.”

If jailed for more than 12 months, Anwar wouldn’t be able to run for parliament again until five years after the sentence has been served, according to Malaysia’s constitution.

Right to Appeal

“He still has a right to appeal,” said Shad in a telephone interview from Kuala Lumpur. “The law says if the person appeals within 14 days, then there is no disqualification until the appeal is disposed of. If parliament is dissolved, that changes the picture. Then the conviction carries effect and a convicted MP would not be able to contest again.”

New York-based Human Rights Watch in a Dec. 22 report called on Malaysia to “revoke its colonial-era law criminalizing consensual sexual acts between people of the same sex” and to drop the case against Anwar. Observers including U.S. Vice President Al Gore, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and billionaire Richard Branson have criticized the use of the law against the opposition chief.

Police fired tear gas and arrested more than 1,600 people protesting in Kuala Lumpur for cleaner and fairer elections in July. Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government tabled a Peaceful Assembly Bill in parliament in November, banning all street protests and allowing other kinds of outdoor rallies to be held only with a police permit.

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