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Judicial reforms afoot

KUALA LUMPUR, 28 Dec 2008: Despite the controversies surrounding the Malaysian judiciary this year, some attempts are being made to restore the institution’s image.

Events signalling a revamp kicked off with lawyer-cum-politician Datuk Zaid Ibrahim being made a senator and appointed de facto law minister after the 8 March general election.

The move by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was aimed at re-building a trustworthy and transparent judiciary and re-capturing public confidence in the judiciary’s integrity which was severely tarnished by the Lingam video clip.

The clip, showing senior lawyer Datuk VK Lingam in a telephone conversation with former chief justice Tun Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim over judicial appointments was found to be authentic by a Royal Commission of Inquiry.

Judicial appointments commission

To further strengthen the judiciary’s credibility, Abdullah proposed an independent judicial appointments commission to make the appointment and promotion of judges more systematic and transparent.

On 10 Dec, Abdullah tabled for first reading in the Dewan Rakyat the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill 2008 to manage the appointment of judges of the Federal Court, Appellate Court and High Court, as well as the appointment of the Chief Justice.

The bill, if passed, will take effect at a date to be determined later.

The prime minister’s pledge to implement other measures, including the need to set salaries and compensation at the right level also received the legal fraternity’s support.

Compensation

The government also made amends to the judges who were unjustly persecuted in the infamous 1988 judicial crisis.

The six judges – Tun Salleh Abas who was then the Lord President, Tan Sri Wan Suleiman Pawanteh, Tan Sri George Edward Seah Kim Seng, Tan Sri Wan Hamzah Mohd Salleh, the late Tan Sri Eusoffe Abdoolcader and Tan Sri Azmi Kamaruddin – who were improperly sacked for misconduct were given ex-gratia payments totalling RM10.5 million.

The judiciary’s top post was taken over last year by Tun Abdul Hamid Mohamad, a no-nonsense man who strongly opposed corruption and wrongdoings, after the retirement of Tun Ahmad Fairuz.

Justice Abdul Hamid took on the task of cleaning up the judiciary’s deteriorating image following the video clip incident. 

Returning independence

Signs of returning judicial independence were also seen in judgements against the government.

One such case was that of blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin who has been a thorn in the government’s side because of his very popular Malaysia Today blog.

The Shah Alam High Court on 7 Nov allowed his habeas corpus application and ordered his release from detention at the Kamunting detention centre under the Internal Security Act (ISA).

In Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s sodomy case, the Sessions Court also foiled the prosecution’s bid to transfer the case to the High Court.

The Opposition Leader, who has long accused the government of interference in the judiciary, hailed the decision which ruled as invalid the transfer certificate signed by Attorney-General Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patail, who is under investigation by the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA).

However, the matter is under revision.

Election petition

The courts also proved that they would not capitulate to the executive branch in their rulings in election petition cases, where the verdicts were crucial to the Barisan Nasional (BN) government.

One such case was the Sanglang state seat in Perlis in which the BN candidate was declared the winner against PAS commissioner Hashim Jasin.

Following a petition filed by Hashim, the Kangar High Court declared the seat vacant and the case was brought to the Federal Court which subsequently ruled in favour of PAS.

The Special Court for Malay rulers also this year ordered the Yang Dipertuan Besar of Negeri Sembilan, the late Tuanku Ja’afar, to pay nearly US$1 million (RM3.5 million) to a bank after deciding that the ruler should honour his commitment in a letter of credit.

Controversies

However, the judiciary continued to be pressured with conflicts and uncertainties.

Zaid resigned suddenly from cabinet in mid-September in protest over the government’s use of the ISA on three civilians.

His controversial presence at Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s national congress and his meeting with Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng in Penang, among other things, led to his sacking from Umno.

Despite this setback, Abdullah gave his word that the implementation of judicial reforms would not be stalled.

Tan Sri Zaki Azmi, who was counsel to Umno, replaced Abdul Hamid following the latter’s retirement despite objections by the opposition.

Upon his appointment, Zaki vowed drastic action against errant judges and gave an assurance that he would not hear cases involving Umno until such time as the public perception of him changed.

However, he very quickly got involved in a controversy because of a press interview in which he declared that he knew of instances of corruption while he was a practising lawyer.

Zaki is still not out of the woods as veteran lawyer Karpal Singh has succeeded in getting 57 Members of Parliament to discuss his conduct in the Dewan Rakyat.

With Islamic law becoming increasingly significant in Malaysia, the 12th chief justice also promised that the judiciary would seek ways to resolve conflicts of civil and syariah law to avert any misinterpretation.

The year also heard the shocking revelation by former Kota Kinabalu High Court judge, Datuk Ian Chin, of the existence of boot camps for judges. — Bernama

 

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