KUALA LUMPUR // With the verdict in his sodomy trial days away, the Malaysian opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, yesterday decried the laws he is charged with breaking, calling them archaic rules that could be abused to promote intolerance, invade people's privacy and punish them too harshly.
The remarks place Mr Anwar, who denies charges he sodomised a young male former aide, alone among senior Malaysian politicians.
Government and opposition leaders alike in this Muslim-majority nation usually avoid making statements that could be perceived as a nod to gay rights, partly because of discomfort among religious conservatives. Sodomy in Malaysia is punishable by 20 years in prison and whipping with a rattan cane.
Mr Anwar, 64, said he was braced for the possibility of a long prison sentence when the Kuala Lumpur High Court delivers a decision on Monday. He will not face the whipping penalty because of his age.
"My view is that you can't have laws to be abused for political purposes and to be seen to be punitive and to be unjust to others," Mr Anwar said in a telephone interview, while travelling on a six-day tour of the country for opposition rallies.
Mr Anwar's accuser, Saiful Bukhari Azlan, 26, testified that Mr Anwar coerced him into having sex at a Kuala Lumpur apartment in 2008.
Mr Anwar did not take the witness stand but criticised the proceedings in a long courtroom tirade from behind the lawyers' table, where he could not be cross-examined.
Mr Anwar, who is married with six children, insists he is innocent and claims the sodomy charge is part of a government conspiracy to discredit him and destroy the opposition's chances of winning general elections, which are widely expected this year. The prime minister, Najib Razak, has denied any such plot.
The anti-sodomy law is seldom and selectively enforced, often only in cases of sexual abuse of children and teenagers, but gay rights activists have long claimed that it encourages homophobia.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch last month urged Malaysia to abandon laws banning same-sex relations.
Mr Anwar has said that while he believes the government must prohibit same-sex marriage and prevent public obscenity, the current sodomy laws could "be abused to show violent discrimination or intolerance".
"Our present laws are deemed to be rather archaic," Mr Anwar said. "The whole idea [should be] to encourage people to understand not to be seen to be so punitive. In this case it's worse - you can go and probe and peep into people's bedrooms just to try to smear them." This is Mr Anwar's second time on trial for sodomy. A former deputy prime minister, he was found guilty in 2000 of sodomising his family's former driver, but Malaysia's top court freed him from prison in 2004 after quashing his conviction and nine-year sentence.
The current charge surfaced in 2008, several months after Mr Anwar led the opposition to its best electoral results since independence from Britain in 1957.
Mr Anwar said yesterday that regardless of the verdict, his three-party alliance was determined to unseat Mr Najib's long-ruling coalition in the next elections and form an administration that would curb corruption and racial discrimination.
The opposition now controls slightly more than one-third of parliament's seats.
"The likelihood of our winning elections ... is not a far-fetched idea," Mr Anwar said. "We believe that change is imminent and for the benefit of all Malaysians."