Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was charged with participating in an illegal street demonstration, potentially hindering efforts to prepare for elections that could come this year.
Prosecutors accused Anwar, leader of the People’s Justice Party, and two deputies of violating the Peaceful Assembly Act by taking part in an April 28 demonstration in Kuala Lumpur that sought faster changes to the country’s election rules. The charge carries a maximum sentence of six months and a fine of 12,000 ringgit ($3,845), Anwar’s lawyer Sivarasa Rasiah said.
A conviction could disqualify Anwar from running in national elections due to be held by early 2013. The charges come four months after he was acquitted of sodomy, enabling him concentrate on leading the opposition against Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ruling coalition which has ruled the Southeast Asian country for five decades.
“It will take away time from the campaigning that he has already started,” said Ibrahim Suffian, a political analyst at the Merdeka Center, an independent research institute near Kuala Lumpur. “If they pursue him too vigorously it would appear as though they are trying to single him out.”
Also charged were the party’s deputy president Azmin Ali and its youth leader Badrul Hisham Shaharin. All three pleaded not guilty and were released.
“It’s clearly political in nature as the election is around the corner,” Anwar told reporters at the Kuala Lumpur court house.
Police used water cannons last month against demonstrators throwing shoes, bottles and chairs while trying to break through barricades to enter a square where the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, known as Bersih, wanted to hold a sit-in. The government passed legislation banning such protests after police detained more than 1,600 people during a similar rally in July.
Preparing for Polls
Preparations for an election have begun, Najib said in December and his National Front coalition may call a vote as early as June, according to four officials who spoke in March. Growth in the region’s third-largest economy has slowed and the prime minister is boosting spending on roads and railways to a record to sustain the expansion.
Prosecutors in January filed an appeal against Anwar’s acquittal of claims by a former aide of a sexual encounter in 2008. Sodomy is illegal in Muslim-majority Malaysia even between two consenting men and carries a maximum sentence of as much as 20 years in prison.
A report tomorrow will show Malaysia’s gross domestic product rose 4.6 percent in the three months through March after increasing 5.2 percent in the quarter earlier, according to the median forecast of 22 economists in a Bloomberg survey.
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