Malaysia's top opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on Thursday dismissed as "treacherous" a sodomy charge against him, but remained free on bail to campaign for a by-election to Parliament.
Anwar, who faced a similar accusation a decade ago, pleaded innocent to the charge during a hearing in the Kuala Lumpur Sessions Court, held amid massive police security that underscored the political tensions surrounding the case.
Anwar says the charge is designed to thwart the rejuvenated opposition from forming the government and ending the National Front coalition's uninterrupted 51-year rule since independence in 1957.
Government prosecutors accused Anwar, 60, of sodomizing his 23-year-old male aide, Saiful Bukhari Azlan, on June 26 in a condominium in Kuala Lumpur. Defense lawyer Sankara Nair said "there is no case," adding that Anwar, a former deputy prime minister, has an alibi.
"This is a treacherous and malicious accusation. I am not guilty," Anwar said after the charge was read in a courtroom packed with opposition activists.
The alleged sodomy came to light after Saiful made a police complaint on June 28. Saiful, who is under police protection, issued a statement through his lawyer saying he was thankful that Anwar was "finally brought to face justice."
Sodomy is illegal even between consenting adults in this Muslim-majority nation and punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar indicated that Saiful would be immune from prosecution.
"Saiful in this particular case has become the primary witness," Syed Hamid said. "If we charge a complainant, it will not be possible (to pursue the case). ... This is how the legal system has worked, whether you like it or not."
The court said Anwar could remain free on bail pending a Sept. 10 hearing to determine whether the case should be transferred to a higher court.
As he walked out of the court, scores of supporters gathered outside clapped and shouted "Reformasi!" — Anwar's slogan calling for political reform. Riot police backed by trucks mounted with water cannon stood by.
"This is clearly a political game," Anwar told reporters. "The charge is meant to embarrass me and nothing else. I'm not embarrassed."
Anwar accused Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi of orchestrating the prosecution to roll back inroads made by Anwar's three-party opposition alliance in March general elections. Abdullah and other government leaders insist there is no conspiracy against Anwar.
"It is the dirty politics of a man who has lost support and very soon will lose power. We will fight them hard," said Anwar.
Abdullah's ruling coalition has only a 30-seat majority in Parliament and has been troubled by Anwar's claims that he can persuade enough lawmakers to switch sides to bring down the government by Sept. 16.
International rights groups criticized the plan to prosecute Anwar.
"The Malaysian government appears to be manipulating the legal system to shore up support for its continued rule and undermine the opposition," said Brad Adams, Asia director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific director, said there were "indications that the government is not playing by the rules in this case."
But by being free on bail, Anwar is free to campaign for the Aug. 26 by-election in a parliamentary seat that his wife vacated last week.
Anwar is expected to win the easily in the constituency that has been his stronghold since the early 1980s, including nearly two decades when he was in the government. He was ousted in 1998 as the deputy prime minister and imprisoned over accusations that he sodomized his driver and abused his power to cover up the offense.
A court quashed the sodomy conviction and freed him in 2004, but the corruption conviction barred him from office until April 2008. Anwar denied the charges and has waited since then to re-enter Parliament.