Opposition leader held on sodomy charge in Malaysia

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History is repeating itself in the worst possible way for Malaysia's opposition leader. Anwar Ibrahim has been arrested by police and he faces a charge of sodomy for the second time in 10 years – in a case his supporters claim is politically influenced.

When Mr Anwar was dismissed as deputy prime minister and imprisoned a decade ago, it led to political riots. This new move against him has raised fears of fresh unrest.

His conviction was overturned previously but not before he had spent six years in jail and been beaten up in custody by the country's police chief.

The Malaysian opposition suspects similar motives lie behind the latest action against Mr Anwar, whose three-party People's Alliance made large gains at elections last March. The ruling coalition's majority was whittled down to 30 seats, and Mr Anwar claims disgruntled coalition MPs are willing to defect in sufficient numbers to enable him to seize power by September.

It is against that background that the new sodomy charge has been laid, following allegations by a 23-year-old aide in Mr Anwar's office. Homosexual sex is illegal in predominantly Muslim Malaysia, even between consenting males, and carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.

Mr Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, said she feared for his safety, after the events of a decade ago, when her husband was beaten unconsicous by Abdul Rahim Noor, the former police chief, while handcuffed and blindfolded in a cell. She said her husband had told her yesterday that police were "not gentle" with him.

Mr Anwar dismissed the new allegations as a political conspiracy. "There's no basis for this whole fabrication and malicious attack," he said. "It is just a repeat of the 1998 script. You can see the pattern."