Anwar Ibrahim, the former leader of the Malaysian opposition, has lost a final appeal to have his prison sentence for sodomy overturned and will serve out the remaining 16 months of his sentence in jail.
Significantly the ruling means Anwar will not be allowed to contest the next election in 2018, which the opposition saw as their best chance to unseat prime minister Najib Razak and end his ruling party’s six decades in power.
A five-member panel of judges ruled unanimously that there was no merit in Anwar’s application for a review of his 2014 conviction, his final legal option for an acquittal.
“We will not proceed to examine the applicant’s review application,” the court said.
Hundreds of demonstrators had gathered outside the Palace of Justice to show support for Anwar and police erected steel barricades around the court complex.
Anwar was led into the dock by more than a dozen prison guards. His wife, daughters and grandchildren were present. After the ruling he told reporters: “It is not the end of the road.”
Having led a coalition of opposition parties in 2013 to their largest ever electoral gains, Anwar, 69, is seen as the greatest threat to the ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno).
He served as deputy prime minister and finance minister in the 1990s for Umno under former leader Mahathir Mohamad but they fell out and he was removed from his post and jailed for several years amid outcry from human rights groups.
In 2013 he returned to politics to run a campaign against corruption and nepotism against Najib that won the popular vote but lost the election by number of legislators elected. Its was Umno’s worst ever election performance.
But Anwar returned to prison in 2015 after his longstanding conviction — for allegedly sodomising a former aide — was upheld. His supporters say the case is a politically motivated attempt to end his career.
This summer Anwar rejoined his old enemy Mahathir to try to unseat Najib, who in 2015 was thrown into a multi-billion dollar corruption scandal involving the debt-laden state fund 1MDB. Najib denies taking any money for personal gain.
The historic partnership between Anwar and Mahathir brought members of the opposition and Umno against Najib for the first time.
However under Malaysian law a person is banned from political activities for five years after the end of their sentence, closing the possibility of Anwar leading any campaign as he did in 2013.
The Free Anwar Now campaign released a statement ahead of the verdict saying the case had “been plagued with many anomalies and inconsistencies, questionable DNA evidence and tampering of critical evidence”.
“Anwar Ibrahim, who turns 70 next year, is surely not a hardened criminal that deserves the harshness of a prison sentence. He endures physical discomfort and mental anguish daily.”
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said the decision was a “real tragedy for justice” in Malaysia.
“More than anything this outcome shows that the Malaysian courts were no match for prime minister Najib Razak’s political vendetta against Anwar,” he said.
“With this final decision running roughshod over Anwar’s rights and sending him back to prison, Najib and the ruling Umno party have just fired the starting gun on the expected 2018 election by permanently sidelining the political opposition’s most capable leader.”
Writing in the Guardian on Tuesday, Anwar said his “political imprisonment” meant Malaysia needed “unyielding international encouragement and pressure”.
“The past 20 years … have seen our country go from bad to worse politically and economically, driven by compromised democratic institutions and years of systematic abuse by the ruling elite to maintain their grip on power.”