Anwar begins Malaysia tour ahead of sodomy verdict

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim late Tuesday launched a nationwide tour ahead of a verdict in his long-running sodomy trial, to declare his innocence and campaign for a change of government.

The trial, which opened nearly two years ago, is the latest crisis for the former finance minister who was sacked and jailed on separate sodomy charges a decade ago, only to make a comeback at the helm of a resurgent opposition.

Ahead of the January 9 verdict which could see Anwar jailed for up to 20 years, he will visit eight states in a whirlwind six-day tour beginning in southern Johor state and ending in a courthouse rally.

"I am making a call for change, enough of this arrogance of power, the abuses of the ruling party, we need change so that such baseless accusations, the persecution of individuals like myself, do not continue," he told AFP.

"The tour is not only to declare my innocence but to convince the people that it is time to vote out Prime Minister Najib Razak's government so as to move towards greater democracy and openness."

Najib has until March 2013 to call general elections, but is widely expected to go to the people this year with hopes of winding back the stunning gains the opposition secured in the last polls in 2008.

Anwar's opposition alliance, led by his Parti Keadilan Rakyat, won an unprecedented one-third of parliamentary seats in that ballot, stunning the Barisan Nasional government which has ruled for half a century.

The new sodomy allegations, levelled by a young former aide, were lodged soon after, fuelling Anwar's allegations that the charges were concocted to destroy his political career.

Anwar's tour began in the ruling party's bastion of Johor on Tuesday night.

He will next head to the central states of Negeri Sembilan and Malacca on Wednesday, and the opposition's stronghold of Kelantan in the north on Thursday.

Event organisers said a few hundred supporters and onlookers turned up at the late-night event in Johor to hear Anwar speak.

"You must vote (for) a change of government if we want to make this country a real home for all Malaysians," he told the crowd, which included non-Malays, as they chanted slogans like "long Live Anwar".

Anwar is famed for his eloquence and charisma and typically draws large crowds keen for a display of his caustic wit and fiery rhetoric.

After a gathering Sunday night at Anwar's residence -- long a rallying point for his supporters -- the tour will culminate on January 9 in a rally outside the Kuala Lumpur High Court where the verdict will be handed down.

"We are expecting over 20,000 people to turn up at the courthouse following the country-wide tour, for people to show their support for Anwar," Parti Keadilan Rakyat youth wing leader, Shamsul Iskandar, told AFP.

Anwar's original conviction sparked unprecedented protests and police have urged the leaders of the courthouse rally to cancel the event.

Kuala Lumpur police chief Mohamad Salleh said it would be "unlawful and threaten public order and stern action would be taken against those involved."

Sodomy is illegal in conservative, Muslim-majority Malaysia and legal experts say a guilty verdict would bar Anwar from contesting the upcoming polls, although others say he may be able to run until appeals are exhausted.

"I have my family around me and party leaders with me, we will speak to the people and reiterate my innocence and pray for the best on January 9," the 64-year-old opposition leader said.

"However, even if I am found guilty and jailed, the opposition's struggle will go on. We are prepared."

Ibrahim Suffian, who heads the Merdeka Centre polling research group, said it was not clear whether a guilty verdict would generate major support for Anwar.

"(According to our surveys) most people really don't really believe the charges. Many believe he is a victim of political persecution," Ibrahim told AFP.

"If he is found guilty, it may embolden him and his party to go out and rally for his cause and give them another reason to mobilise support," Ibrahim said.

The former deputy premier's critics have also stepped up attacks against him in recent days.

Over the weekend, former supporter and influential blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin, who is in exile after fleeing sedition charges, told local media Anwar was unfit to be premier over the sodomy case as a gay Prime Minister was unacceptable to Malaysians, but stopped short of calling Anwar a homosexual.

However, Anwar said that he was not bothered by the comments "which only shows how desperate the government is in trying to destroy me, that they are now using fugitives from the law to attack me."

Anwar's legal battles have loomed over Malaysian politics for years.

He had been groomed to take the helm of the multi-cultural nation but a bitter split with his boss, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, in 1997 led to his arrest the following year.

He was later convicted on sodomy and corruption charges widely seen as politically motivated, but was freed from jail in 2004 after the sodomy conviction was overturned.

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