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Monday, November 5, 2007

Watershed in Malaysia over courts' autonomy

SMH (3/11/2007): Malaysia rarely makes our news these days, a sign the country is generally stable and prosperous and, at least since the retirement of the former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad four years ago, relatively free of abuses of authority.

But this week a battle has come to a head in Kuala Lumpur that will be crucial to whether Malaysia rolls back one of Mahathir's worst assaults on good governance and constitutional safeguards during his 22 years as leader.

It will either set the country's judiciary back towards the widely respected independence that Mahathir subverted, or confirm it as a pliable extension of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the party that has led government since the Malaysian federation was formed in 1963.

The players are Mahathir's successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and the Conference of Rulers, the nine traditional sultans of the Malay states who take five-year turns as Malaysia's king.

Abdullah and the sultans are deadlocked over the necessary royal approval for the Prime Minister's candidates for the Supreme Court chief justice, following the retirement in some disgrace this Wednesday of Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim. Malaysia's judiciary has been weak since 1988, when Mahathir sacked the chief justice (then called the Lord President), Salleh Abbas, and two other Supreme Court judges, by getting the UMNO-controlled parliament to appoint a special tribunal into their alleged misconduct.

This followed rulings in favour of Mahathir's UMNO rivals, Razaleigh Hamzah and Musa Hitam, in their procedural objections to Mahathir's narrow win in a party leadership ballot the year before.

The weakness of the judiciary became apparent in Mahathir's later persecution of his deputy prime minister and political rival Anwar Ibrahim with trumped-up sodomy and corruption charges, for which he was sentenced to six years in jail in 1999 and nine years in 2000.

The sodomy conviction was quashed and Anwar released in 2004, after Mahathir stepped down. Anwar leads the opposition Keadilan party, but is still fighting the corruption conviction and is barred from political office until April next year.

In September, Anwar released a video recording purporting to show a lengthy conversation in 2002 between Ahmad Fairuz, then the country's third-ranking judge, and a well-known lawyer, V.K. Lingam, arranging the appointment of judges favourable to the UMNO government and its cronies, such as the gambling tycoon Vincent Tan.

"Don't worry. We organise this," Lingam said to Ahmad about one judicial appointment. "If Tan Sri Vincent [Tan] and Tengku Adnan [Mansour, minister of tourism and UMNO powerbroker] want to meet you privately, they will. I will call you. We organise in a very private arrangement, in a very unusual place."

The revelation led to a protest march by 2000 lawyers, and a petition signed by 5000 leading Malaysians to the king. Another big protest is planned for November 10.

Anwar has used the recording as part of his comeback, saying the alleged conspiracy had bearing on the outcomes of several judicial cases, including his own. Yet he has now come under investigation by police for refusing to divulge the identity of the person who made the recording with a mobile phone.

Abdullah tried to get a six-month extension in office for Ahmad, whose term ended this week. He inducted UMNO's chief legal adviser, Zaki Azmi, as a Federal Court judge, apparently to position him to succeed as chief justice, despite a lack of previous judicial experience.

But the rulers have dug in their heels, by withholding their approval. A spokesman for the rulers is the widely respected Sultan of Perak, Azlan Shah, who was the lord president of the Supreme Court in the 1980s before Mahathir's intervention.

"Without a reputable judiciary - a judiciary edowed and equipped with all the attributes of real independence - there cannot be the rule of law," Azlan said in a widely noted speech at a legal conference this Monday.

Abdullah has restored a more constructive image to Malaysia, but is yet to strike decisive blows against the pervasive corruption and cronyism of the Mahathir years. He could do this by helping to restore judicial independence, and repealing the outmoded Internal Security Act, with its arbitrary detention powers dating from the 1950s communist insurgency, which only adds to the problem.


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