Malaysia’s LingamGate

A royal commission appointed to investigate Malaysia’s judicial system has concluded that the country’s courts have been subject to widespread fixing of judicial appointments that corrupted decisions at the behest of ranking politicians.

The report has not been released and, given its political sensitivity – involving, for instance, allegations of judicial abuses by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad – it is posing serious problems for the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and the United Malays National Organisation. Although the document has been submitted to Malaysia’s king, the cabinet will decide whether it will be released to the public, Zaid Ibrahim, the Minister in the Prime Minister's Department overlooking legal affairs told reporters.

However, the report appears to confirm what has been widely reported so far on b logs and in the press -- and that is that the court system was almost entirely in the thrall of politicians with close ties to businessmen. The commission was appointed last year after opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim made public an eight-minute segment of a 2002 videotape showing the well-connected lawyer VK Lingam in conversation with Ahmad Fairuz, then the country’s third-ranking judge. The release of the videotape played a major role in energizing opposition to the ruling Barisan Nasional, the ruling national coalition of ethnic parties, in elections earlier this year that wiped out the coalition’s historic two-thirds majority and resulted in its biggest defeat since independence.

The conversation appeared to indicate that Mahathir was closely involved in the appointment of malleable judges although appointments are supposed to be made by the court system itself. The videotape shows that some of Mahathir’s closest cronies, particularly gaming tycoon Vincent Tan, were involved as well. Ahmad Fairuz later became chief justice of the Supreme Court, now called the Federal Court.

The Kuala Lumpur-based Star newspaper reported earlier this week that the commission had found Lingam guilty of influencing the appointment of top judges in Malaysia and recommended that the Attorney-General's Chambers further investigate the matter. In particular, the appointment of Ahmad Fairuz as Chief Justice may have been unconstitutional and illegal as the then Chief Justice Mohamed Dzaiddin, had recommended a Federal Court judge, Abdul Malek Ahmad, to the post. Hence, Mahathir and others in the executive were in breach of "mandatory consultation" required in the appointment of judges.

The Star also reported that the commission recommended reopening investigations into a holiday that Lingam took with another former Chief Justice, Eusoff Chin, because "fresh allegations by Lingam's brother and former secretary constituted dreadful allegations against Eusoff and a few other judges." In the hearing, Lingam's brother said he had delivered bags of cash to judges while Lingam's former secretary admitted that she booked the holiday for Lingam and Eusoff.

In a bid to defend himself, Mahathir has reportedly said that the video was made with the intention to blackmail Lingam because the lawyer is defending him in a RM100 million (US$30.59 million) defamation suit filed by Anwar Ibrahim. The latter has dismissed the allegations of blackmail, pointing out that he was in jail when the video was made.

Anwar leads the People's Alliance, or Pakatan Rakyat (PR), the opposition coalition consisting of his party, the People's Justice Party, Democratic Action Party and Islamic Party of Malaysia. Mahathir sacked Anwar in 1998, who was deputy prime minister and finance minister. He was accused in court of sodomy and abuse of power and was later jailed for abuse of power. His sodomy conviction, widely viewed by human rights organizations as trumped up, was later overturned.

Anwar has asked for the report to be made public and for those implicated to be prosecuted. "We welcome the submission of the report of the Royal Commission on the Lingam video clip to the Yang DiPertuan Agong (Malaysia’s king),” he said in a statement. “We call for its full ventilation to the Malaysian public. If Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi is serious about judicial reform, then he should take this report to its logical culmination which is the investigation and prosecution of those who the report deems to have deviated (from) the course of justice," he added.

He also hinted that his own case may have been fixed by the judges' political masters, namely Mahathir himself. "We have to ask what the import of the Royal Commission’s findings are with respect to the unjust prosecutions and convictions in cases that fell within the gravitational field of the inquiry conducted by this Commission," he said.

Although he served as a protégé to Mahathir prior to his arrest and imprisonment in 1999, and presumably was an unresisting witness to much of the judicial shortcomings while at the top of the Malaysian government, Anwar now says, "It is critical that adequate measures be taken to restore the independence of the judiciary and to ensure the professional and unbiased investigation and prosecution of criminal activity by the Attorney General’s chambers that is free of executive interference."

"This would involve serious consideration of the inconsistence and dubious procedures being followed by the authorities right now in the investigation of cases that involve senior government officials and, to mention a few of the more egregious allegations, murder and the massive misappropriation of public funds."