KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was charged Tuesday for his part in a rally for fair elections last month, in a case he denounced as another govt attempt to remove him from politics. Anwar and two other defendants from his party were charged with violating a controversial new law governing public gatherings and a court order that banned the April 28 rally from the centre of the capital. The charge comes just four months after Anwar was acquitted of sodomy in a long-running trial that the charismatic leader has said was engineered by the govt of PM Najib Razak to remove him as a political threat.
"We will fight. This is political intimidation," the 64-year-old Anwar told reporters as he left the court in the capital.
"Najib is afraid to face me in elections. I want to tell Najib not to use the courts and the flawed (assembly) law passed in parliament to intimidate political opponents."
Anwar's lawyers and a top Election Commission official have confirmed that a conviction on the new charge would strip Anwar of his eligibility to stand for election.
Najib must call national elections by early next year and many observers expect a tight contest after the Anwar-led opposition handed the ruling coalition its worst poll showing in its history in 2008 polls.
Tens of thousands of Malaysians marched in last month's rally organised by electoral-reform group Bersih 2.0, demanding changes to an election system they say is rigged in the ruling coalition's favour.
Since his stunning 1998 ouster as deputy prime minister in a power struggle with his boss Mahathir Mohamad, Anwar has spent much of his time either imprisoned on or fighting charges he views as politically motivated.
The new charges, which came to light Wednesday in a summons issued to Anwar, have triggered fresh criticism of a new law on public assemblies passed late last year amid strong criticism from the opposition and human rights groups.
Anwar, who was charged along with two other figures in his opposition People's Justice Party, said they were the first people charged under the Peaceful Assembly Act.
Najib, who has sought to portray himself as a reformer, has said the act guarantees the right of citizens to assemble publicly, but it bans street protests, and critics say it places a range of crippling curbs on other gatherings.
Najib is on an overseas trip, and a spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.
Human Rights Watch called on the government to withdraw Wednesday's charges and amend the assembly act.
"The best way to reform the Peaceful Assembly Act is to repeal it and draft a new law," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for the rights group, said in a statement.
"The government needs to go back to the drawing board."