Defiant Anwar is jailed for six years

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THE BITTER public battle between Malaysia's ageing political leader and his brilliant protege reached its climax yesterday with the former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim sentenced to six years in prison on four corruption charges.

With seats for the verdict at a premium, the world's press began queuing outside the High Court at 5.30am. For the lucky ones, it was the smiling, resolute countenance of Anwar when confronted with the six-year sentence that left the biggest impression.

Anwar, once regarded as the natural heir to the Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, expected to be found guilty of using his position to cover up allegations of sodomy and adultery. "As per instructions" he said with a wry smile when the verdict duly came.

"I had no hope whatsoever that I would be tried fairly," he told the court in an impassioned speech, made despite Judge Augustine Paul's frequent, lame attempts to silence him. "The charges are part of a political conspiracy to destroy me and ensure Dr Mahathir's continued hold on power at whatever cost. I have been dealt a judgment that stinks to high Heaven."

The trial that has gripped Malaysians for six months has steered a course through the tragic to the plain farcical. The sight of Anwar's bruised and beaten face in his first court appearance last year drew international condemnation, while the lengthy perusal of a semen-stained mattress rivalled the Lewinsky affair for unsavoury details. When witness after witness began to retract or deny allegations of sodomy and adultery, the trial looked as though it might fall apart altogether.

Sadly for Anwar, Judge Augustine succeeded in reaching a conclusion, one that may kill the defendant's political career. If an appeal fails, he will be in prison for the next six years and barred from entering parliament for five years after his release, by which time he will be 62.

Yesterday a lean and fit-looking Anwar showed just why he has inspired such a groundswell of public support, not only with his fiery speeches, but with a cheeky humour and obvious devotion to his family. When pleading with the judge to let him speak, he quipped: "You have 394 pages - I have just five!" And he was quick to correct the attorney-general, who appeared to refer to him as the former prime minister. "I was not the leader, I was the deputy leader!" he called out, to stifled laughs from the benches behind.

The ebullient defendant looked momentarily shaken when the sentence was passed and jumped out of his seat to check he had heard correctly. "Was that six or sixteen?" he asked incredulously.

He soon recovered his composure, turning to smile at his family and clench his fist.

"I expected two to four years, but I'm not that surprised," he said afterwards. "It will be difficult, I will miss my family, but we have to continue the fight."

His parents, his wife, Azizah Ismail, and their six children surrounded him afterwards, hugging and kissing him. Nurul Izzah, his eldest daughter, was unable to control her tears, which flowed down her cheeks until her father gently touched her head and smiled at her in mock reproval.

As Azizah left the courtroom, she was greeted by cheers and chants of "We want justice!" from the crowds outside. Fighting back tears, she said: "Our family is very sad, but we have no regrets."

Gurbachan Singh, one of Anwar's lawyers, called the sentence "manifestly excessive". He added: "The maximum in this sort of case has been two years. I am completely shocked."

After the verdict crowds took to the streets in defiance of a ban on gatherings, and vented their feelings at the ranks of police and water cannon awaiting them. Soon streams of water laced with pepper spray were running in the gutters under the midday sun. One of those arrested was Tian Chua, head of an alliance of opposition parties and rights groups. "I want to know why police have beaten me up," Mr Tian, who appeared to have bruises on his head, told reporters.

The 73-year-old Dr Mahathir is now left to wonder if his former friend may be more of a threat inside prison than out. Anwar suggested that his incarceration was perhaps "just a small sacrifice" on his part to convince the people of the urgent need for reform.