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Malaysia's opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. (Palani Mohan / Getty Images)
Malaysia's opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. (Palani Mohan / Getty Images)

Anwar Ibrahim again battles dubious sex charges Add to ...

There is an uncomfortable pattern to life for Anwar Ibrahim, the charismatic leader of Malaysia’s opposition. In 1998, shortly after he quit the authoritarian government of Mahathir bin Mohamad, he was convicted and jailed on trumped-up sodomy charges.

Six years after that conviction was quashed and he was released from prison – and just as it looked like he and his multi-ethnic coalition might finally oust the long-ruling United National Malays Organization from office – Mr. Anwar finds himself trapped in the most awkward of reruns, once more accused of “consensual intercourse against the order of nature.”

The charges again look to be a thinly veiled attempt to ruin Mr. Anwar’s reputation and sabotage his political career in this Muslim-majority country. The trial to date – dubbed “Sodomy II” in Malaysia’s unsubtle government-controlled press – has produced a succession of lurid headlines about lubricant tubes and stained underwear, while Mr. Anwar and his lawyers have been denied the right even to see the medical records of the man with which he is alleged to have had anal sex.

But instead of letting the scandalous court proceedings force him to the sidelines, the eternally optimistic Mr. Anwar has been using good humour and his ever-present BlackBerry to turn even the most awkward of headlines to his advantage, holding up the charges against him as proof of the absurdity of the system he’s trying to change.

As a lone judge contemplates whether there is evidence to convict Mr. Anwar and sentence him to up to 20 years in prison, as well as a flogging, Mr. Anwar has continued his ferocious assault on a government he derides as repressive and corrupt, blogging from the courtroom and sending cheeky and upbeat 140-character updates to his followers via Twitter.

“Sodomy circus turns into sex opera!” reads one of Mr. Anwar’s mid-trial posts, which linked to a video of a lawyer discussing the lurid details of the case. “Courage of conviction. Que sera sera,” was his response to a fellow Twitter user who worried the energetic 63-year-old was headed back to jail.

The odds do seem stacked against Mr. Anwar, a former deputy prime minister who was once considered the rising star of Malaysian politics. But to hear him tell it, his déjà-vu legal ordeal is evidence that Prime Minister Najib Razak and his party are losing their grip on power, and they know it well.

“They can’t deal with me politically – either my economic programs or policies. They can’t debate me. So they resort to this ludicrous exercise to demonize me,” he said in an interview at the offices of his People’s Justice Party in western Kuala Lumpur, a confident grin fixed on his narrow, goateed face. “We will win the next election and we will change the courts.”

It seems unlikely things will go quite that smoothly. Mr. Anwar’s political career has seen his fortunes change as often and as quickly as the weather in this peninsula thrust between the Indian and Pacific oceans. The leader of a Muslim youth organization during his student days, he shocked his followers by joining UNMO in the early 1980s and taking a succession of cabinet posts in the authoritarian government of Mr. Mahathir, eventually rising to become his powerful finance minister and deputy prime minister.

But the two men never saw eye-to-eye on key issues, and they eventually fell out during the 1997 Asian financial crisis over economic policy and Mr. Anwar’s accusation that cronyism at the top was hurting the country’s economy. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Anwar – frequently held up in the West as an example of a moderate Muslim democrat – was in jail.

Though initially barred from politics upon his release, Mr. Anwar steered the opposition to a surprisingly strong finish in 2008 elections, and – even as the new sodomy charges were being laid –very nearly won the long-sought prime minister’s chair in the aftermath when he called for a vote of non-confidence in Mr. Najib’s government. Mr. Anwar said he had the support of a majority in parliament, including an unspecified number of UMNO defectors, but the vote never happened. Instead, 40 key lawmakers were sent on a government junket to Taiwan during which some were apparently convinced to rethink supporting Mr. Anwar’s bid for power.

The next election, which can be called any time before 2013, is set to be a high-stakes affair in this rapidly developing country of 28 million, which has seen freedom of speech blossom since the 2003 retirement of Mr. Mahathir and the rise of the Internet. Any kind of conviction would keep Mr. Anwar – who heads an improbable coalition that consists of liberal reformers like himself and an Islamist party that seeks to impose Koranic law – on the sidelines for another five years.

Mr. Anwar, a married father of six children, denies the new charges that he had sex with a 25-year-old former aide to Mr. Najib. (The sodomy law, which dates back to the British colonial era, has only been used seven times since independence, with four of those charges being levelled against Mr. Anwar.)

The case recently devolved into further farce when it surfaced that the complainant was having an affair with a member of the prosecution team. Though Judge Mohamad Zabidin Diah acknowledged the affair as fact, he denied Mr. Anwar’s application to have the charges thrown out on that basis.

Mr. Anwar, who counts Al Gore, Nelson Mandela and former Canadian prime minister Paul Martin among his friends, said that while the Malaysian court system would do him no favours, he thinks his case is high-profile enough that the government won’t dare jail him again. “It’s a catch-22 for them. If they put me in jail, they invoke more sympathy, certainly the government will lose … And unlike Mahathir, Najib wants to be seen to be acceptable in the international community.”

Mr. Anwar’s undimmed ambition to be prime minister clearly infuriates his political opponents. Even in retirement, his mentor-turned-nemesis Mr. Mahathir uses his own blog to mock his former protégé and lash back at accusations that the case against Mr. Anwar is trumped up. “Could it be that it was actually the victim of anal rape who decided to tell things as they happened? I would like to say we should wait for the court to decide, but that can take a very long, long time or even never,” Mr. Mahathir wrote recently.

Despite a near-complete ban on his speaking to the official media, Mr. Anwar appears to be winning the public-relations battle, in part because of his savvy online efforts. A poll conducted by the independent Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research shortly after the new charges were filed found that only 11 per cent of the more than 1,000 respondents believed the new sodomy allegations against Mr. Anwar. Two-thirds said they agreed with the statement that the trial was “a politically motivated action to disrupt Anwar Ibrahim’s political career.”

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