BANGKOK - Malaysia’s highest court has upheld a sodomy conviction against Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, rejecting a final appeal in a case dating back almost seven years.
Rights groups say the verdict appeared to be politically motivated, with Anwar facing a five-year jail term.
Malaysia’s news bulletins were led with the breaking news Tuesday that Anwar had lost his fight to stay free after a Federal Court upheld an appeals court verdict over charges of sodomy.
Federal Court judge Arifin Zakat, who read the verdict over almost two hours, said there was "overwhelming evidence" that Anwar had in 2008 sodomized an aide.
In 2012, a High Court had raised questions over evidence in the case when it acquitted him over the charges. Tuesday’s federal court ruling overturns that judgment, sending the 67-year-old politician to prison.
Emotional scenes followed the verdict as Anwar was surrounded by family and friends, some in tears, before being led away to begin his jail term.
Amid tight security, about 2,000 Anwar supporters had gathered outside the court Tuesday, many shouting anti-government slogans.
Human rights and opposition groups criticized the verdict, calling it politically motivated and targeted to put an end to Anwar’s long involvement in Malaysian politics.
The U.N. Human Rights office said on Tuesday it was "disappointed" by the Malaysian Federal Court ruling upholding Anwar's conviction on sodomy charges.
"The bottom line for us is the charge in this case should not be a criminal offense," U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told a news briefing in Geneva.
Key opposition leader
Anwar has been a key opposition leader overseeing the Pakatan-Rakyat Party, which is seen as a major threat to the governing Barisan Nasional, led by the UMNO.
The opposition parties snared a majority of the primary vote at the last elections but were unable to unseat the UMNO-led government.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, called the verdict "shameful" and "outrageous" and said that it left a stain on human rights in Malaysia.
“It’s an extremely grim day for human rights and democracy in Malaysia," said Robertson, who was at the court for the ruling.
"It is basically the triumph of a politically motivated prosecution to hunt down and finally get their man. It’s basically an outrage that the international community has to react against something most Malaysians and people around the world would be frankly stunned to see; an opposition leader hauled away from his family and friends for five years,” he added.
Sodomy a crime in Malaysia
Sodomy, even consensual, is a crime in Muslim-majority Malaysia, with jail sentences of up to 20 years.
Anwar’s defense team had tried to argue that the evidence and testimony against him were fabricated in a politically motivated plot against him.
But Judge Arifin called the political conspiracy "an allegation unsubstantiated by any facts whatsoever."
Anwar had been accused by an aide, Saiful Bukhari Azlan, who said Anwar had sodomized him in an apartment in 2008.
The latest charge and sentencing is the second Anwar has faced in a four-decade political career. In the 1990s he rose to deputy prime minister under former leader Mahathir Mohammad.
Analysts said Anwar was viewed as a rival for the leadership.
In 1998, amid Asia’s financial crisis, Anwar was charged with sodomy after being fired by Mahathir.
The dismissal triggered unprecedented street protests, but Anwar was found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison. The conviction was overturned on appeal in 2004.
Some analysts said Tuesday's verdict is set to further galvanize the three-party opposition, Pakatan Rakyat, which has helped unify several opposition political factions, including secular groups, Malays, Chinese and Muslims under one political umbrella.
Some material for this report came from Reuters.