Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail leave after a news conference in Kuala Lumpur.

(Kuala Lumpur) – The conviction of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim after seven years of politically motivated proceedings under an abusive and archaic law is a major setback for human rights in Malaysia

On February 10, 2015, the Federal Court of Malaysia upheld a lower court ruling and sentenced Anwar to five years in prison for violating Malaysia’s sodomy law. The Malaysian authorities should exonerate Anwar, a former deputy prime minister, and the government should act to repeal section 377 of the penal code.

“Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government has persisted in its politically motivated prosecution of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim at the expense of democratic freedoms and the rights to non-discrimination and privacy for all Malaysians,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Allowing this travesty of justice to stand will further undermine respect for rights and democracy in Malaysia.”

The decision of the Federal Court, Malaysia’s highest court, strips Anwar of his seat in the federal Parliament where he leads the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition. Malaysian election law provides that any person who is imprisoned for one year or fined 2,000 ringgit (US$550) is forbidden from running for office for five years after release from prison. Many observers believe that the five-year ban from politics, when coupled with his prison sentence, means an effective end to Anwar’s political career.

Police arrested Anwar on July 16, 2008, based on a complaint from Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan, a political aide, that Anwar had consensual sex with him. Serious fair trial concerns arose throughout the original trial, including the prosecutors’ unwillingness to provide defense lawyers with access to medical and other evidence against their client. Nevertheless, the High Court acquitted Anwar on January 9, 2012, ruling that DNA samples that were central to the prosecution’s case had not been handled or maintained properly and thus were possibly contaminated. The High Court judge said the only other major evidence was the alleged victim’s statements, and those were uncorroborated.

The government appealed and on March 7, 2014, the Court of Appeal overturned the acquittal and sentenced Anwar to five years in prison. The appeal court hearing, originally scheduled for April, was hurriedly moved to March 6 and 7. In addition, the verdict and sentencing hearing were conducted on the same day despite defense counsel requests, which were denied, that they be given adequate time to prepare for mitigation, including provision of medical evidence. The sentencing hearing was conducted after a one-hour recess on a day of proceedings that had lasted until 5 p.m. The immediate result was that Anwar’s conviction disqualified him from running in the Kajang district state assembly election in Selangor on March 23. If Anwar had been permitted to run and won the seat, he would have been eligible to seek the position of chief minister of Selangor state, a development strongly opposed by the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.

This is the fourth time Anwar has been charged under section 377 of the penal code, a law that discriminates against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. The article has been invoked only seven times since 1938, according to research by the Women’s Candidacy Initiative. The willingness of successive Malaysian governments to use the law repeatedly against one high-profile political opponent highlights the danger it poses so long as it remains on the books, Human Rights Watch said.

“By persisting in its political vendetta using section 377, the government is also denigrating Malaysia’s LGBT community,” Robertson said. “Using an archaic and discriminatory law in order to score political points shows Prime Minister Najib’s encouragement of intolerance under his rule.”