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Last updated: May 22, 2012 8:19 am
Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s opposition leader, has been thrust back into the political spotlight after being charged with defying a ban on protests to take part in a demonstration that turned violent in Kuala Lumpur last month.
The demonstration, organised by a loose coalition of campaigners calling for electoral reform, was the biggest in Malaysia for years, involving at least 25,000 people.
It was broken up by police using teargas and water cannon, prompting accusations from opposition figures and rights groups about excessive force.
Malaysian authorities said protesters illegally occupied Merdeka Square in the capital, where gatherings are banned. They said the protesters broke through barriers after largely peaceful demonstrations.
Mr Anwar was charged, along with two allies, with defying a court order banning the protest. All three said they were innocent of any charge but face a maximum jail sentence of six months and fines totalling 12,000 ringgit ($3,800) if convicted.
“It is clearly a politically motivated charge. Elections are around the corner,’’ Mr Anwar told reporters after being charged, according to the AP agency.
The court scheduled a preliminary hearing on July 2.
Last month’s protest – organised by a yellow-shirted movement called Bersih, Malay for “clean” – called for forthcoming elections to be fair and was attended by Mr Anwar. Video footage posted on YouTube appears to show him at the rally, at one point gesturing to protesters near metal barriers.
Political analysts said the image would probably be interpreted by prosecutors as evidence that Mr Anwar urged protesters to breach the barriers.
The Malaysian government told the Financial Times: “The public prosecutor has made it clear that charges will be pursued against anyone involved in inciting or committing acts of violence during the recent Bersih protest.
“To date, charges have been brought against various individuals, including two policemen, for events that took place during the protest. Charges are decided on by the public prosecutor following receipt of police investigation papers.”
Last month’s protests came against a backdrop of rising anticipation that Najib Razak, Malaysia’s prime minister, will call elections.
They will take place amid an increasingly complex political landscape as Mr Najib, leader of the multi-ethnic south-east Asian nation since 2009, tries to bolster his record as a reformer while appeasing conservatives in his coalition anxious that longstanding Malay economic privileges are not eroded.
The United Malay National Organisation government this year repealed laws allowing indefinite detention without trial, which had been in place since not long after Malaysian independence in 1957.
If convicted, Mr Anwar could lose his seat in parliament, depending on the severity of the sentence.
Mr Anwar rebounded on to the national stage in January after the High Court acquitted him of sodomy charges. He leads a coalition of three opposition parties, known as Patakan Rakyat, or People’s Alliance.
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