KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister and now leader of Malaysia’s opposition, took his seat in parliament on Thursday after a decade-long absence following convictions for sodomy and corruption.
Anwar, 61, won a sweeping victory in a by-election on Tuesday and has now set his eyes on the country’s premiership, vowing to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi by a self-imposed deadline of Sept. 16.
The charismatic father of six remains dogged by his past, however, and faces prosecution on Sept. 10 to answer new charges of sodomy after allegations by a male aide.
Anwar says the latest sodomy case is politically motivated and designed to scuttle his quest to lead Malaysia and reform the economy.
Before his fall from grace in the late 1990s, Anwar was deputy prime minister in the government that has ruled Malaysia for 50 years and widely viewed as heir apparent to then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
But in 1998, after Malaysia plunged into the Asian financial crisis, he took up a campaign against the corruption, collusion and nepotism he said characterised Malaysia’s business and political nexus.
Mahathir immediately sacked him from his posts, and charges of sodomy and corruption soon followed -- allegations Anwar still insists were concocted to thwart his “reformasi” (reform) campaign.
Anwar’s case drew international outrage after he appeared in court on the 1998 charges with a black eye and bruises after getting beaten up behind bars by the police chief, who was later fired for it.
Human rights groups called him a political prisoner, and his supporters compared him to former South African President Nelson Mandela, who rose to power after years in jail.
Anwar was convicted on both charges and spent six years in jail but Malaysia’s Supreme Court overturned the sodomy conviction in 2004 and the opposition leader was freed from prison.
The corruption conviction for abusing his office to allegedly cover up the sodomy allegations stood and that kept him from legally seeking office until April this year.
Born on August 10, 1947, Anwar attended one of Malaysia’s top schools, and made his name as a firebrand Islamic youth leader.
He was jailed for 20 months beginning in 1974 under Malaysia’s sweeping Internal Security Act for leading anti-government demonstrations against impoverished conditions in the north.
Mahathir invited him to join the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the main government party, in 1982 to bridge the gap between the party’s Malay nationalist image and its rising Islamic aspirations.
Under Mahathir’s charge, Anwar’s rise was meteoric. He held a string of senior cabinet posts, including the ministries of agriculture and education, and had been finance minister since 1991 before being sacked.
In his current political role, Anwar, appointed as leader of the three-party opposition alliance on Thursday, will now work to entice defectors from the government into his coalition so as to take power.
His coalition of reformers, Islamists and an ethnic Chinese party has 82 MPs in parliament and hopes to win over 30 government legislators so as to have a majority in the 222-member chamber.
But the spectre of the latest sodomy charge looms large. If he is found guilty in the current case, Anwar’s newly revived political career would effectively be over.
All homosexual acts are illegal in mainly-Muslim Malaysia and sodomy is crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison.