SEREMBAN, Malaysia — Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said Wednesday that his coalition will not disintegrate even if he is found guilty of sodomy charges and imprisoned after a verdict next week.
Anwar was charged in 2008 with having sex with a male former aide. A verdict in the long-running trial is set for Monday, and if found guilty, the 64-year-old politician faces up to 20 years in jail.
Anwar has denied the charge, claiming it is a government plot to tarnish his image in this conservative Muslim-majority country and reverse his coalition’s 2008 unprecedented poll gains.
Late Wednesday, Anwar told a gathering of about 500 people in central Negeri Sembilan state, near the capital Kuala Lumpur, that his three-party opposition alliance would not crumble without him.
“Anwar in jail, Anwar out of jail… it doesn’t matter. The most important (thing) is people should overthrow UMNO,” he said during his hour-long fiery speech, referring to the ruling United Malays National Organisation.
Anwar’s opposition alliance, led by his Parti Keadilan Rakyat, won an unprecedented one-third of parliamentary seats in the 2008 polls, stunning the Barisan Nasional government which has ruled for half a century.
The sodomy charge surfaced shortly after the election.
Strolling on a small makeshift stage in a parking lot on Wednesday, Anwar said he was innocent and called on his supporters to “save our country” from government corruption and mismanagement.
“I’m not guilty. I’m a victim of slander… There is no case if they follow the facts or the law,” he said.
After his speech, the crowd greeted him with slogans like “Long live the people” and “Long live Anwar”.
“Everybody knows Anwar has not done anything wrong ever. (The government) is playing the same card, the same game,” Izzat Haffiz, 21, a civil engineering student, told AFP.
“We fight for democracy,” he said. “I feel very sad because our government… grabs all the freedoms we are supposed to have.”
The rally was part of a nationwide tour that began Tuesday in the southern Johor state to raise support ahead of the verdict. Anwar will visit six other states and Kuala Lumpur before a courthouse rally Monday.
Anwar, a former deputy prime minister, already spent six years in jail on convictions of sodomy and corruption a decade ago after he had a fallout with his then boss, ex-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
The sodomy conviction was eventually overturned and he was released in 2004.
Prime Minister Najib Razak is widely expected to call fresh general elections due in 2013 this year, hoping to regain a strong mandate with such vows that he will allow greater civil liberties. His Barisan Nasional coalition has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957.
Malaysian Election Commission deputy chairman Wan Ahmad Wan Omar says even if convicted, Anwar was still eligible to run until he has exhausted all avenues of appeal.
After that, anyone convicted to more than a year in jail or a fine of 2,000 ringgit ($635) will be barred from contesting elections for five years.