Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has been charged for his part in a rally for fair elections last month, in a case he denounced as another government attempt to remove him from politics.
Anwar and two other defendants from his opposition party were charged on Tuesday with violating a controversial new law governing public gatherings and a court order that banned the April 28 rally from the centre of the capital Kuala Lumpur.
The move comes just four months after Anwar was acquitted of sodomy in a long-running trial that he had said was engineered by the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak to remove him as a political threat.
“We will fight. This is political intimidation,” the 64-year-old Anwar told reporters as he left the court in the capital.
“Najib is afraid to face me in elections. I want to tell Najib not to use the courts and the flawed [assembly] law passed in parliament to intimidate political opponents.”
Anwar’s lawyers and a top Election Commission official have confirmed that a conviction on the new charge would strip Anwar of his eligibility to stand for election.
“The Malaysian 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,” a Malaysian government spokesperson said.
“To date, charges have been brought against various individuals, including two policemen, for events that took place during the protest,” the spokesperson told Al Jazeera.
“Charges are decided on by the public prosecutor following receipt of police investigation papers.”
Najib must call national elections by early next year and many observers expect a tight contest after the Anwar-led opposition handed the ruling coalition its worst poll showing in its history in 2008 polls.
Tens of thousands of Malaysians hit the streets of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, for the rally organised by electoral-reform group Bersih 3.0, demanding changes to an election system they say is rigged in the ruling coalition’s favour.
The demonstration turned violent when protesters breached a barricade set up around the city’s central Independence Square, which authorities had ruled was off limits for the rally, prompting police to fire tear gas and water cannon.
Anwar’s legal troubles, and their impact on his ability to lead the opposition, has dominated Malaysian politics since his 1998 ouster from the ruling coalition turned him from leader-in-waiting to firebrand dissident.
A meteoric rise up the ranks of the ruling party to deputy prime minister ended with his sacking in a falling-out with his boss Mahathir Mohamad. He was later jailed on charges of sodomy and corruption widely viewed as politically motivated.
Released in 2004, he led an opposition alliance to stunning gains in 2008, but the new allegations of sodomy with a former aide emerged soon after and he was back in court. Anwar was acquitted in January.
Malaysia has been braced for months for elections expected to be a tight contest after the 2008 results raised the spectre of the ruling coalition losing power for the first time.
Najib must call elections early next year but is widely expected to do so within months.