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Malaysia’s Anwar faces charges over protest as election looms

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim will be charged over his role in a street protest against the government last month, police and Anwar’s aides said on Monday, adding to tension ahead of what are likely to be closely fought national elections.
Anwar, a former deputy prime minister who spent six years in jail on sodomy and corruption charges, received a summons to appear in court on Tuesday to be charged with contravening a Peaceful Assembly Bill, his aides said.
Anwar cannot be imprisoned for the latest charge and faces a maximum fine of about $3,200, said Sankara Nair, a lawyer who will represent the opposition leader in the case.
Anwar returned to parliament in a 2008 by-election, having served a five-year ban on political activity following his jail term.
Putting further legal pressure on the 64-year-old Anwar, who was acquitted of another sodomy charges in January, could prove risky for the government by increasing sympathy votes for the de-facto leader of the three-party opposition coalition.
“Of course we will fight it,” said Nair, who said the charge was another example of politically motivated legal action against Anwar. “They (the authorities) didn’t say it was an illegal assembly.”
Anwar, who was not available for comment, says the previous charges against him were a result of political persecution, addressed the tens of thousands of protesters who thronged the center of Kuala Lumpur late last month to demand changes to the country’s electoral laws.
The protest turned violent when police fired teargas and water cannon at protesters who had broken through barricades, the latest sign of rising political tension ahead of elections the Prime Minister Najib Razak is expected to call soon.
A video later surfaced showing Anwar gesturing to senior opposition politician Azmin Ali shortly before the barricades were breached. Government allies said the video showed Anwar had encouraged the breach, something he and Azmin - who has also received a summons on the same charge - have denied.
Police arrested hundreds of protesters and were accused by human rights groups of an overzealous response, including beating unarmed demonstrators and assaulting journalists.
The violence risked tarnishing Najib’s carefully groomed image as a reformer ahead of elections that could be the closest in Malaysia’s history following a surge in support for the opposition in 2008.
The National Front coalition lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time in the last election, signalling growing dissatisfaction over cronyism and the slow pace of reform.