Malaysia’s judiciary in crisis of confidence

Ensuring Socio-economic Justice

Our Own Correspondent

Dhu al-Qa'dah 12, 1416 1996-04-01

South-East Asia

by Our Own Correspondent (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 25, No. 2, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1416)

In May 1988, Mohammad Salleh Abas, the then Lord President of Malaysia, the most senior judge in the country, was suspended following a statement he made allegedly containing ‘political innuendos’. He had written a letter to the King complaining of attacks on the judiciary by prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. The Lord President was charged before a special tribunal in accordance with the law. A month later, five Supreme Court judges were also suspended for issuing a temporary restraining order to block the tribunal.

Now, eight years later, the country’s judiciary is again in crisis. This time it is entirely a different sort of crisis. A member of the Bench has been positively identified by the police as the author of a 33-page ‘poison pen letter’ - officially described as a pamphlet - which was circulated widely to the public. This ‘document’ has unambiguously accused the current Chief Justice and many other judges of blatant corruption and abuse of power, containing, according to the police, 112 highly defamatory and seditious allegations. While announcing the result of the investigation into the poison pen letter, the Attorney General said that all allegations of corruption and abuse of power by the judges and officials of the judiciary mentioned in the letter, had been thoroughly investigated and were found to be untrue and baseless. Yet the matter, said the A-G, is closed and no action will be taken against the writer “in the public interest”. This has shocked Malaysians at all levels for it is clear to everyone that the matter is closed in the interest of the judges and not the public.

Despite the fact that some of the allegations amount to sedition - a serious offence under the law of any country, the Attorney General decided not to prosecute the writer. This has brought the judiciary in disrepute and its integrity has become questionable. What is even more shocking and insulting the intelligence of the public is the fact the writer by implication, is a member of the Bench, obviously a senior judge.

“We are not talking of the ordinary man-in-the-street,” said a prominent Malaysian journalist. “We are talking of a man who dispenses justice as a judge of the High Court. A man who could have progressed eventually to Chief Justice. He writes a pamphlet, for the writing of one less serious, others had been detained under the Internal Security Act.”

The government’s refusal to conduct an independent investigation into the issue and to take action against the writer might have been prompted by the fear that many dirty linen will be washed in public if the writer is prosecuted. This is a serious situation.

The Bar Council’s call for the establishment of an independent Royal Commission of Inquiry was dismissed by the prime minister as “not necessary”. “The issues raised in the letters had been investigated and were found to be baseless”, he said, adding that it was “adequate the wrongdoer has resigned”. In other words for such a serious offence as making false allegation on the most senior judges of the country, one can go scot-free simply by resigning from the job.

Even a proposal by the main opposition party, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) to debate the issue in the Parliament was turned down. “The case is closed” was the reply given by the Parliament’s deputy speaker. The Islamic party, PAS, called on the judges who had their names tarnished by the ‘poison pen-letters’ to take court action if the allegations were baseless. Numerous NGOs have expressed similar disappointment.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Param Cumaraswamy called on the country’s senior judges to address the shortcomings in the judiciary and maintain its impartiality.

The inaction shown by the government reminds Malaysians of the case involving a former chief minister of the Malacca state who was forced to step down after allegations of corruption and sex scandal. He was let free after the Attorney General refused to press charges. (The former chief minister has since been reappointed as the ruling UMNO’s Youth Chief).

This is in contrast to the case of Irene Fernandez, a prominent non-governmental organisation activist. Ms. Fernandez, who heads a women’s NGO, Tenaganita, is currently being charged for “maliciously publishing false news” about the police. Ms. Fernandez’s only sin was that she documented abuses and torture by the police of Indonesian and Bangladeshi illegal immigrants who were being detained in camps set up by the immigration department. The camps had recorded almost 40 deaths within the first half of last year due to malnutrition diseases such as beri-beri. Instead of investigating the allegation, the table was turned on her and she was accused of “false reporting” and prosecuted.

The action was condemned by several human rights groups. In a statement released recently, Human Rights Watch Asia described the decision to prosecute Ms. Fernandez as undermining freedom of expression. “While accuracy in reporting is obviously a goal that all NGOs should strive for, errors may sometimes creep in not only into NGO reports but also into government reports as well. But what government bureaucrat has been slapped with a criminal charge of ‘false reporting’?” says the group in its report, Malaysia - Freedom of Expression on Trial.

An equally blind accusation was made against critics of the controversial Bakun Hydro Electric Dam project in Sarawak by charging them anti-development and therefore unpatriotic. The project was declared illegal by the High Court - that semblance of sanity may prove to be only temporary.

Muslimedia - April 1996-August 1996

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