KUALA LUMPUR • Jailed Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim yesterday lost his final bid for freedom when a federal court rejected his appeal to set aside his sodomy conviction and five-year jail term.
Once a rising star in the ruling Umno, Anwar is seen as a threat to Prime Minister Najib Razak and his coalition, after leading a three- party opposition alliance to stunning electoral gains in 2013.
A panel of five judges ruled unanimously that Anwar's application for a review of his 2014 conviction, his final legal option for an acquittal, was without merit.
"This is not a fit or proper case for this court to exercise its inherent jurisdiction to initiate a review," Tan Sri Zulkefli Ahmad Makinudin, the Chief Judge of Malaya, said as he read excerpts from a 60-page ruling.
Anwar was convicted of sodomising a former aide, a charge he and his supporters describe as a politically motivated attempt to end his career. "This is not the end of the road... I have pleaded and reiterated my innocence, but the judiciary has ignored my pleas," Anwar, 69, said after the verdict. "This is a long walk to freedom."
Anwar is widely expected to be freed after serving another 16 months, as Malaysia grants a one-third reduction of jail terms for good behaviour. The prison term ends in 2020.
This is not the end of the road... I have pleaded and reiterated my innocence, but the judiciary has ignored my pleas.This is a long walk to freedom.
OPPOSITION LEADER ANWAR IBRAHIM
But the conviction disqualifies him from political office and from contesting the next general election that must be held by 2018.
Datuk Seri Najib has been buffeted by graft allegations and faced the biggest challenge to his leadership last year following reports that hundreds of millions of dollars had been misappropriated from state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad. The Prime Minister weathered the political crisis by consolidating power and cracking down on dissent.
Crowds gathered outside the court ahead of the verdict to show support for Anwar, backed up by his wife, children and grandchildren in the courtroom.
The verdict was a "real tragedy for justice", said Mr Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "With this final decision... Najib and the ruling Umno have just fired the starting gun on the expected 2018 election by permanently sidelining the opposition's most capable leader."
A former deputy prime minister, Anwar's legal troubles began after he fell out with then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in the late 1990s and was sacked.
He campaigned against graft and nepotism and led a nationwide reform protest movement. He was jailed for the first time on charges of sodomy and graft.
In the 2013 elections, Anwar led an opposition alliance that posed the first genuine challenge to Umno, which has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957. But the opposition fell apart after his impri- sonment.