KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - A Malaysian judge on Monday ordered a sodomy trial involving opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to proceed, setting the stage for a lengthy trial that could boost Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government ahead of a possible snap election this year.
Judge Zabidin Mohamad Diah asked Anwar to enter his defense on allegations that will likely hurt his reputation among conservative ethnic Malays and damage the opposition’s chances of wresting power.
“I find a prima facie case has been made out against the accused, therefore I call upon the accused to enter his defense,” the judge told the court, dashing any hopes Anwar supporters had had of his dismissing the case altogether.
Sodomy carries a maximum penalty of 20 years’ jail. The trial will take place from June 6-30.
Anwar pledged to fight on, branding the case a political plot aimed at repelling the opposition.
“To anyone who monitors the media, it is like an obsession or phobia,” he told Reuters. “Not one day passes without them portraying Anwar as the enemy of the people, the agent of the Christians or Chinese or Jews, and sexual pervert.
“But would this derail or distract us? My answer is no. For the trial we will be on the offensive. We choose the witnesses, no longer the prosecution stage. I will have my say in my defense.”
Several hundred Anwar supporters had earlier thronged the court compound shouting “Reformasi,” the reform movement set up by Anwar after he was sacked as deputy prime minister in 1998. In contrast, Anwar’s sacking in 1998 brought tens of thousands on to the streets.
Analysts said Monday’s court ruling increased the chances of a general election this year, although one isn’t due until 2013, with Najib expected to grab the chance while the opposition’s attention is diverted by the trial.
Anwar’s People Justice party is regarded as the link that holds together a widely disparate three-party opposition coalition which has seen sharp differences over the use of Islamic criminal law and the rights of majority ethnic Malays.
“The outcome today provides the ruling party with some advantage, Anwar will be embroiled in the case and it will take a while for this case to reach its conclusion,” said Ibrahim Suffian, director at the independent opinion polling firm Merdeka Center.
Once the rising star of Malaysian politics, Anwar was jailed for sodomy and corruption after he was sacked by former premier Mahathir Mohamad in 1998, with graphic details of the alleged offences made public. He was freed in 2004 after the country’s top court overturned the sodomy conviction.
Monday’s decision comes after a recent allegation that Anwar was the man caught on tape having sex with an unidentified woman. He has denied the charge and described it as a political conspiracy.
“The obsession of Najib and the administration to attack me is because they think I am the glue (that binds the opposition Pakatan),” Anwar said. “I believe they are wrong because with or without Anwar, Pakatan has proven itself to be able to give a coherent message and they have established themselves as a credible group.”
Since taking office in 2009, Najib has welcomed more foreign ownership in Malaysian banks and liberalised some segments of the services sector. But he has twice delayed the implementation of a goods and services tax and baulked at further rolling back fuel subsidies, raising doubts about his commitment to reform.
In a March report by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Malaysia ranked as the second-least popular market after Colombia among global emerging market fund managers and tied with India for least favorite among Asia-Pacific asset managers.
Editing by Liau Y-Sing and Nick Macfie