Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim shouts to his supporters at a court house in Putrajaya. Picture: Samsul Said

Kuala Lumpur - A leading Malaysian politician who gained fame defending opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in his sensational sodomy trials was killed in a road accident on Thursday, police said.

Karpal Singh, 73, died along with a longtime assistant when his vehicle collided with a lorry on a highway in the northern state of Perak in the early morning, said state police chief Acryl Sani Abdullah.

Anwar said the news of Karpal's death came “like a lightning bolt”.

“Just last evening, I had had a lengthy chat with him,” he said in a statement, expressing “profound sadness”.

Amnesty International mourned “the loss of an important voice in the struggle for justice and human rights in Malaysia”.

The outspoken Karpal, who was confined to a wheelchair following a 2005 road accident, emerged as a leading lawyer in the 1970s.

First elected to parliament in 1978, he was detained without trial in 1987 for more than a year under a tough crackdown on opposition figures.

He later went on to defend Anwar, who was ousted in 1998 from the top ranks of the authoritarian Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition that still rules Malaysia.

After losing a power struggle, Anwar was convicted on sodomy and corruption charges widely viewed as politically motivated. He spent six years in jail.

Anwar later emerged to lead a once-divided political opposition to stunning electoral successes that have brought it to the cusp of power, shaking Barisan to its core.

Karpal again defended Anwar against new sodomy charges brought in 2008. Anwar was acquitted in 2012 but that decision was overturned by a higher court in March in a ruling criticised by rights groups and the US State Department.

Anwar, who faces five years in jail, plans to appeal.

Karpal, an ethnic Indian of the Sikh faith, was himself convicted in February. He was found guilty of sedition in a ruling he denounced as “political intimidation” by the Barisan government led by Prime Minister Najib Razak.

The case stemmed from comments he made in 2009 that were deemed to have questioned the actions of Perak's ceremonial Islamic sultan. It is illegal to insult mainly Muslim Malaysia's nine state sultans.

Najib had pledged in 2012 to abolish the Sedition Act but nothing has been done and authorities have continued to use the law, mainly against opposition figures.

Najib, whose government is accused by rights groups of routine trampling on democratic freedoms, called Karpal “a formidable opponent” and “committed advocate” for the law, according to a statement released by his office.

Amnesty in a statement called on Najib's government to follow through on its promise to eliminate the Sedition Act, saying it “continues to be used to stifle freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Malaysia”. - AFP