KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) â€” A Malaysian court on Friday sentenced opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to five years in jail on sodomy charges, overturning an earlier acquittal and ending his hopes of contesting a local election this month.
The court said Anwar could remain free on bail while he appeals the verdict to the country’s highest court.
Anwar, 66, is the most potent threat to the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose popular support has weakened over the last two elections.
Sodomy is a crime in Muslim-majority Malaysia and is punishable by up to 20 years in jail.
International human rights groups say the legal moves against Anwar are politically motivated.
Anwar was accused of sodomizing a male aide in 2008 but was acquitted by the High Court in 2012. The government appealed that decision.
Appeals Court Judge Balia Yusof Wahi said Friday that the lower court’s decision to acquit Anwar was wrong.
“We unanimously allow this appeal and set aside the decision of the High Court. This respondent is hereby found guilty and convicted of the offense charged,” he said.
The guilty verdict will mean that Anwar will be unable to run for a seat in an opposition-ruled state later this month. Anwar had been expected to take over as the chief minister of Selangor, the country’s richest state, if he had won the election.
Friday’s verdict is the latest development in a long-running legal campaign against Anwar, who has maintained that the sodomy charges were trumped up.
“This trial was all about knocking Anwar Ibrahim out of politics, pure and simple, and the government was prepared to jump through whatever hoops were necessary to make that happen,” said Phil Robertson of the New York-based group Human Rights Watch. “It’s a dark day for the Malaysia judiciary, which has shown today how hard it is to get a free and fair trial when political issues are in play.”