|Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the opposition, faces charges of sodomising a 27-year-old male aide in June 2008 [Reuters]
The politically charged sodomy trial of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has finally closed with the judge setting January 9 for a verdict that is expected to have major electoral implications.
Defence lawyers were allowed a final rebuttal of the prosecution's charge on Thursday, bringing to an end a closely watched trial which opened in February 2010.
Anwar, 64, is accused of sodomising a 27-year-old male aide in June 2008. Sodomy is illegal in Malaysia and the former deputy prime minister could be jailed for up to 20 years if convicted.
Legal experts say a guilty verdict would bar Anwar from contesting polls expected to be called by Najib Razak, the current Malaysian prime minister, within months, although others say he may be able to run pending any possible appeal against the verdict.
"It doesn't make a difference, in jail or outside, I will fight for justice," Anwar said.
Anwar accuses Najib of using the case to damage a resurgent opposition alliance of ethnic Malay, Chinese and Muslim parties.
The sodomy allegation emerged shortly after the Anwar-led opposition secured historic gains in March 2008 parliamentary elections against the ruling coalition dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
Anwar, who was jailed a decade ago on a separate sodomy conviction that was later overturned, says the case is part of a pattern of legal harassment by the long-ruling coalition to ruin him politically.
"The process has not been fair. This is not a fair trial and we have adduced enough cogent, compelling, incontrovertible evidence to support that," Anwar told reporters after the trial ended.
"Having said that, we are still hopeful that sanity will prevail and the judge will decide based on the facts and the law."
Anwar had been groomed to take the helm of the multi-cultural nation but a bitter split with his ally, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, in 1997 led to his arrest the following year.
He was later convicted on sodomy and corruption charges widely seen as politically motivated, but was freed in 2004 after the sodomy conviction was overturned.
Whether or not Anwar can run in the coming polls, political observers say the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition apparently hopes his image, and the opposition's, will be fatally tarnished by a guilty ruling, especially among conservative majority Malay voters.
However, analysts say widespread perceptions among Malays, who make up about 60 per cent of the country's 28 million people, that Anwar is being persecuted have caused many to desert UMNO in favour of the opposition.
A ruling against Anwar could backfire on Najib, said James Chin, a political science professor with Monash University in Kuala Lumpur.
"Most people expect Anwar to be found guilty so the key will be in the sentence. If Anwar gets a harsh sentence, it will lead to strong anti-BN sentiments," Chin told the AFP news agency.
Anwar said after Thursday's proceedings ended that a guilty ruling would "strengthen the resolve of the opposition and public awareness for the need to reform".