Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim will be charged over an April protest demanding fair elections, his lawyer said Monday, accusing the government of a fresh bid to remove Anwar from politics.
The move comes just four months after Anwar was acquitted of sodomy in a long-running trial that the charismatic leader has said was engineered by the government of prime minister Najib Razak to remove him as a political threat.
Anwar will be charged in a Kuala Lumpur court on Tuesday with violating a contentious new law on public assemblies and a court order restricting the April 28 rally, his lawyer Sivarasa Rasiah told AFP.
“This is a fresh attempt to bar Anwar from participating in the elections. The sodomy allegations failed, and now this is a new attempt to disqualify him,” Sivarasa said.
Tens of thousands of Malaysians hit the streets of the capital Kuala Lumpur for the rally organised by electoral-reform group Bersih 2.0, demanding changes to an election system they say is rigged in the ruling coalition’s favour.
The demonstration turned violent when protesters breached a barricade set up around the city’s central Independence Square, which authorities had ruled was off limits for the rally, prompting police to fire tear gas and water cannon.
AFP could not immediately reach Anwar for comment.
Anwar’s legal troubles, and their impact on his ability to lead the opposition, have dominated Malaysian politics since his 1998 exit from the ruling coalition turned him from leader-in-waiting to firebrand dissident.
A meteoric rise up the ranks of the ruling party to deputy prime minister ended with his sacking in a falling-out with his boss Mahathir Mohamad. He was later jailed on charges of sodomy and corruption widely viewed as politically motivated.
Released in 2004, he led an opposition alliance to stunning gains in 2008, but the new allegations of sodomy with a former aide emerged soon after and he was back in court. Anwar was acquitted in January.
National police spokesman Ramli Yusoff confirmed a summons was issued for Anwar to appear in court on charges related to the demonstration but said he had no further details.
Anwar and a top official in his opposition party, Azmin Ali, have been accused of inciting demonstrators to breach the barricades via much-debated hand signals – video clips of which have circulated online.
Anwar and Azmin – who faces the same charges, according to Sivarasa — have said their gestures were being twisted by the government for political means.
Sivarasa said that if found guilty of violating the new Peaceful Assembly Act, Anwar could be disqualified from running for elections for five years.
Election Commission deputy chair Wira Wan Ahmad confirmed that to AFP, but added Anwar would be allowed to run while appealing any potential guilty verdict.
Najib’s office did not immediately offer comment on the matter.
Malaysia has been braced for months for elections expected to be a tight contest after the 2008 results raised the spectre of the ruling coalition losing power for the first time.
Najib must call elections early next year but is widely expected to do so within months.
After police crushed a clean-elections rally last July, prompting sharp criticism of Najib, he launched a drive to reform authoritarian laws, which the opposition has called a cynical election ploy.
New charges against Anwar will likely reignite fierce criticism of the assembly law, enacted late last year over opposition objection. It places curbs on public gatherings and bans street protests.
Independent online media said Anwar and Azmin were the first charged under the law.
“We feared this Peaceful Assembly Act will be used to punish and silence the opposition and rights activists,” Nalini Elumalai, executive director of the Malaysian rights group Suaram, told AFP.
“Now it has come true.” -By M. Jegathesan