Malaysia's High Court ruled Monday that prosecutors have established a credible sodomy case against Anwar Ibrahim, forcing the opposition leader's lawyers to start presenting defense witnesses next month.
The ruling dashed Anwar's hopes of an immediate end to a trial that could lead to his imprisonment for up to 20 years. Anwar insists the government concocted the charge that he sodomized a 25-year-old male former aide. Prime Minister Najib Razak and other officials have denied plotting against Anwar.
Further trial hearings will distract Anwar as he prepares his three-party opposition alliance for general elections that are widely expected within a year. Najib's ruling coalition is working to regain at least a two-thirds parliamentary majority and recapture several states that Anwar's alliance wrested in 2008 polls.
High Court Judge Mohamad Zabidin Diah said Monday he believed that Saiful Bukhari Azlan, one of Anwar's former aides, seemed truthful and reliable while testifying that Anwar made him have sex in a Kuala Lumpur apartment in 2008.
"I find a prima facie case has been made out against the accused," Mohamad Zabidin told a packed courtroom. "Therefore I call upon the accused to enter his defense."
The judge scheduled hearings to run June 6-30. Sodomy, even consensual, is a crime in Muslim-majority Malaysia.
Anwar's lawyer, Sankara Nair, said the opposition leader would be the defense's first witness. His team might also question the prime minister and dozens of other people, including foreign medical experts.
"We know this is a case of a major conspiracy involving the prime minister, his wife" and the former national police chief, Anwar told reporters.
Saiful wrote on Twitter that he was "thankful" for the court's ruling. He added that he would remain patient and was praying that the rest of the trial would proceed smoothly.
Judge Mohamad Zabidin said prosecutors had presented sufficient evidence to corroborate Saiful's testimony, including DNA samples from semen found on Saiful's body that allegedly matched Anwar's. Defense lawyers insist authorities obtained some of the samples illegally and handled them wrongly.
Anwar said he considered his position "very precarious" because Mohamad Zabidin dismissed many of the defense's key arguments. The judge said he found it "understandable" that Saiful did not try to escape Anwar's alleged sexual advances or file a police complaint sooner because Saiful had long idolized Anwar and was concerned about his future.
It is Anwar's second time being embroiled in a sex trial. He lost his post as deputy premier in 1998 after being charged with sodomizing his family's ex-driver and abusing his power to cover up his actions _ both of which he denied. He was freed in 2004 after six years of imprisonment when a court overturned the sodomy conviction.
The married 63-year-old with six children has also recently denied allegations that he had sex with a prostitute after two former government politicians and a businessman leaked a sex video they claimed featured Anwar.
Associated Press writer Sean Yoong contributed to this report.