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[KUALA LUMPUR] A Malaysian court is due to decide this week on an appeal by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim against a sodomy conviction and five-year prison term, with a ruling against him likely to all but end his political career and inflame tension.
A court convicted Anwar in March of sodomising a former political aide and sentenced him to five years in prison. Sodomy is illegal in Malaysia.
Anwar, who in the mid-1990s was the ruling party's rising star before falling out with then premier Mahathir Mohamad, condemned the verdict as a "choreographed" travesty. Supporters and rights groups said it was politically influenced.
The government rejected the notion of political interference saying Malaysia had an independent judiciary and the case, brought by a former male political aide, was between two individuals and a matter for the courts.
The conviction, Anwar's second for sodomy, shattered his political plans which had been given a boost by opposition gains in a 2013 election. His lawyers appealed and a court will take up the case on Tuesday, with a decision possible on Wednesday.
If Anwar, 67, loses, he faces a return to jail and would be barred from contesting the next general election that must be held by 2018.
He told reporters on Monday he had decided he would not go abroad to avoid the possibility of jail. "This is my country and I cannot imagine leaving," he said."It's a tough choice. Imagine at my age having to go back to prison." But he said he remained optimistic about the hearing: "Don't be surprised that I'll be a free man on Wednesday." Human Rights Watch called last week on the government to end the "politically motivated prosecution" of Anwar. A ruling against him would anger his supporters who could take to the streets.
His departure from politics could also herald the disintegration of an uneasy three-party opposition alliance that he leads.
The Pakatan Rakyat, or People's Alliance, groups Anwar's party, an ethnic Chinese party and an Islamist party. It was shaken recently by a dispute over who should take the leadership of opposition-controlled Selangor state. "Given the situation now, it would be difficult for everyone to come to a consensus on Anwar's replacement," said Muhammad Sabu, deputy president of the Islamist party, known as PAS.
Anwar's daughter, Nurul Izzah, said her father's jailing would pose a real test for the alliance. "You're talking about the man who is a unifying factor no longer being there. He drove the coalition together," Nurul Izzah told Reuters.
But Anwar's jailing could galvanise the opposition, an analyst said. "There is a potential here to turn what was previously an opposition coalition led by one dominating figure into a coalition that represents the people," said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs.
Muhammad Sabu of PAS said the opposition parties had to stick together in the face of the political juggernaut of the ruling party which has been in power since independence in 1957. "We have to unite otherwise we are finished in the next election," Sabu said.
After Anwar was sacked in 1998, he campaigned against corruption and nepotism and led a nationwide "reformasi"(reform) movement before he was jailed in 1999 for corruption.
His first sodomy conviction, in 2000, was overturned in 2004 and he was released from prison and returned to politics as the head of a revitalised opposition whose showing in a 2008 election deprived the ruling coalition of its traditional two-thirds majority in parliament.
The opposition alliance remains a threat to the coalition of Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose majority was cut further in the 2013 election.
But ruling party member Nur Jazlan Mohamed played down the chances of instability over Anwar's fate, saying he no longer enjoyed the support he once did. "Unlike in 1998, the younger generation today are not fanatical enough to rally for Anwar," he said.