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Malaysia's Anwar Pleads Not Guilty to Sodomy Charges, Freed on Bail

Malaysia's leading opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim pleaded not guilty to sodomy charges in a Kuala Lumpur court and was freed on bail, allowing him to campaign for a seat in parliament. VOA correspondent Nancy-Amelia Collins in Jakarta has more.

Top opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim called the charges of sodomy against him "treacherous and malicious accusations" after the charges were read out Thursday in a courtroom packed with members of the opposition.

Government prosecutors accuse Anwar, a former deputy prime minister, of forcibly sodomizing his 23-year-old male aid last June.

Sodomy is illegal in Malaysia, even if it is between consenting adults, and punishable by up to 20 years in jail.

Anwar accuses the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi of fabricating the charges against him to prevent his opposition alliance from toppling the government.

"Clearly this political prosecution is dirty politics of a man who has lost support and very soon will loose power," he said. "We will fight them, we will fight them hard."

The government denies the charges.

Johan Saravanamuttu, a political analyst from the University of Malaysia and currently a visiting research fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies , says support for Anwar is high and polls in Malaysia suggest most people there believe he is innocent.

"What's next for Anwar is that he will probably win that by-election given this charge because he will use it to drum up support and already there is considerable support for him because of this," he said.

Anwar is contesting a parliament seat his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail vacated, forcing the government to hold a by-election on August 26. If he wins, he promised to topple the government with the help of government defectors after the March elections gave the opposition a third of parliament seats.

In the March general elections, the long time ruling Barisan National coalition hung on to power but lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority control over five of Malaysia's 13

While the ruling coalition has a 30-seat majority in the 222-member parliament, Anwar says he has enough support from lawmakers who have promised to switch sides to enable him to bring down the government.

However, political analyst Saravanamuttu says Anwar's plans could be derailed by the sodomy charges and trial.

"If he's snared by the trial, he may not be able to do all the kind of work that he was planning to do to forge a winning coalition in Parliament and to topple the government," said Saravanamuttu. "So this could be seen as a tactic on the part of his political opponents to slow down that effort of his to topple the government as well."

The international human rights group Amnesty International called on the Malaysian government to withdraw it's ''politically motivated" sodomy charges against Anwar and said it appeared the government was "manipulating the legal system to shore up support for its continued rule."