Malaysia is a middle-income country with aspirations to join the ranks of the first world economies. It aims to have citizens attain average annual incomes equal to those of OECD states by 2020. But Anwar and supporters say Malaysia is not a functioning democracy and last July he led around 20,000 people in a rare protest in the streets in Malaysia's largest city, Kuala Lumpur.
The rally sought changes to the electoral system, which they said was rigged in favor of the incumbent government – a coalition of Malay, Chinese, and Indian political parties known as the Barisan Nasional (National Front) that has run the country since 1973.
The police response to the peaceful rally was heavy-handed; protestors were doused with tear gas and a water cannon and more than 1,500 people were arrested. The crackdown drew worldwide attention, and Anwar, who was injured while taking part, held it up as an example of government failings.
Anwar, who previously served six years in jail on a separate sodomy conviction that was overturned in 2004, accused the government of again trying to eliminate him from politics on what he and his supporters described as another fabricated charge, this one made by a former aide in 2008.
That charge came soon after Anwar’s three-party opposition group, called the Pakatan Rakyat (People's Alliance), an unwieldy amalgam, took just over one third of the seats in Malaysia's parliament after a best-ever showing in 2008 elections. That result made the Alliance appear a realistic threat to eventually replace the National Front.
For hours before Monday's verdict, some 2,500 opposition supporters chanted and prayed outside the court building, a mosque-like structure with a domed roof, to await what many Malaysians assumed would be a guilty verdict, given Anwar's prior conviction and allegations of a rigged court.