By James Hookway
Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and his party deputy were charged in court Tuesday in connection with a street protest last month in Kuala Lumpur that led to riot police turning tear gas and water cannons on demonstrators, in some of the most chaotic scenes Malaysia’s capital has seen in years.
If convicted, Mr. Anwar could lose his seat in Malaysia’s Parliament, adding to a long list of legal problems the opposition leader has faced in his political career, including two sodomy charges. He was eventually cleared of the charges in both those cases, which he said were politically motivated.
The deputy leader of Mr. Anwar’s People’s Justice Party, Azmin Ali, was charged in Kuala Lumpur’s Sessions Court along with Mr. Anwar for allegedly urging demonstrators to surge into an area cordoned off by police. A party member, Badrul Hisham Shaharin, was also charged. All three said they were innocent.
By charging Mr. Anwar, 64 years old, state prosecutors risk heightening political divides in a polarized nation, with elections expected to be called in the next few months. The protest at the center of the cases involving Messrs. Anwar and Azmin was one of the biggest in Kuala Lumpur in more than a decade.
“It is clearly a politically-motivated charge. Elections are around the corner,” Mr. Anwar told reporters, the Associated Press reported.
On April 28, more than 50,000 people protested in a mostly peaceful show of support for electoral reforms, as Prime Minister Najib Razak and his ruling National Front coalition prepare for national elections that must be called by spring 2013, and which could come sooner.
The protests, dubbed Bersih, the Malay word for “clean,” came after a run of political changes that the prime minister introduced in response to calls for reforms to strengthen Malaysia’s democracy, and to boost the electoral appeal of the National Front, which has governed Malaysia for decades.
While moves such as ending arrests without warrants and allowing more political dissent have helped improve Mr. Najib’s opinion poll ratings, some Malaysians want to see faster and wider changes aimed at helping this resource-rich but authoritarian-minded nation emerge as a full democracy.
The credibility of the Peaceful Assembly Act—a centerpiece of Mr. Najib’s changes, enacted after a 2011 prodemocracy protest—could be affected by Mr. Anwar’s latest case. The government says the legislation was designed to create more leeway for political protests in the country, but critics and opposition political say it criminalizes protesters who step beyond the bounds of the law.
In a statement, a Malaysian government spokesperson said state prosecutors will pursue charges against anyone involved in inciting or committing acts of violence during the recent Bersih protest.
“To date, charges have been brought against various individuals, including two policemen, for events that took place during the protest,” the spokesperson said. “Charges are decided on by the public prosecutor following receipt of police investigation papers.”
Political analysts said Mr. Anwar’s prosecution reflects a pattern of government officials using legal cases to question the credibility of opposition figures, especially Mr. Anwar.
“There is a fine line between these tactics succeeding, or galvanizing support for the opposition,” said Bridget Welsh, a professor at Singapore Management University and a long-time observer of Malaysian politics.
In 1998, government leaders attempted to portray Mr. Anwar as a dangerous radical when he led mass protests after being sacked as deputy prime minister. He was charged with sodomy–a crime in this conservative majority-Muslim nation—later that year. Mr. Anwar denied the charge and was later cleared of it in 2004 after spending six years in jail.
In 2008, Mr. Anwar was charged with sodomizing a young male aid. Mr. Anwar again said he was innocent and called the charges trumped up to destroy his political career. He was acquitted in January, although state prosecutors have appealed that decision.
Mr. Najib has denied orchestrating a conspiracy against Mr. Anwar.
New York-based Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, urged Malaysian authorities not to use aftermath of the latest Bersih demonstrations to sideline opposition leaders.
“The Malaysian authorities appear to be using what happened at the Bersih demonstrations as a pretext to prosecute political opposition leaders,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These charges, and the actions by police at the Bersih rally, don’t inspire confidence that the Malaysian government is committed to protecting basic free expression rights.”
Celine Fernandez in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this article