Malaysia’s embattled judiciary, already facing a long series of allegations over its independence and under attack by the country’s Conference of Rulers who are blocking the appointment of a new chief judge, has taken another body blow with the release of an eight-minute video clip showing a politically well-connected senior lawyer purportedly in telephone conversation with the then-Chief Judge of Malaya, discussing the appointment of politically pliable senior judges.
In the conversation, made public Wednesday by Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim of Parti Keadilan, lawyer V K Lingam makes it clear that Mahathir Mohamad, then the prime minister, was closely involved in the appointment of senior judges, along with some of Mahathir’s closest cronies, particularly gaming tycoon Vincent Tan.
Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim, then the third-ranking judicial official and in charge of the senior judges in Peninsular Malaysia, was later elevated to become chief justice of the supreme court.
Concerning one appointment, Lingam is heard to say to Ahmad Fairuz: “Don’t worry. We organize this. If Tan Sri Vincent (Tan) and Tengku Adnan (Mansour, the minister of tourism and an UMNO heavyweight) want to meet you privately, they will, I will call you. We organize in a very private arrangement, in a very unusual place.”
The videoclip, recorded on a cellular telephone by someone Anwar said he wouldn’t name to protect him, was apparently made in 2002. Anwar carried it on his website here.
(verbatim transcript of Lingam’s side of the conversation below)
The publication of the video has kicked off a firestorm in Malaysia. But although all of Malaysia’s major newspapers carried brief stories about the politically volatile videoclip, none named either Lingam or Ahmad Fairuz, preferring to deal largely in nonspecifics. For instance the New Straits Times, which is closely linked to the dominant United Malays National Organisation, for instance, said only that Anwar “alleged that a senior lawyer discussed with a top member of the judiciary, how to ‘fix the judgments of several cases.’” Malaysia’s other politically linked papers carried similarly brief stories.
That didn’t stop Malaysia’s ferocious bloggers from posting the videoclip numerous times. It was also uploaded onto Youtube. In addition, it appeared on the homepage of the Malaysian Bar Council, whose chairman, Ambiga Sreenevasan, called for a royal commission of inquiry and issued a statement saying that “rumors and allegations of such machinations (of politically inspired appointments) have been rife since the judicial crisis in 1988 (when Mahathir fired the Chief Justice and two other members of the Supreme Court). With the emergence of this video clip, the concerns expressed by various quarters in relation to the judiciary can no longer be swept aside. Immediate and urgent action must be taken. A Royal Commission of Inquiry into this matter and the affairs of the judiciary must be appointed. Nothing less will do."
In addition Aliran, the Penang-based reform organization, called for a commission of inquiry and demanded the immediate suspension of the chief justice. In a statement released Thursday, the organization said that "the rot in the judiciary must be addressed urgently and as a matter of priority." P. Ramakrishnan, Aliran's president, signed the statement, citing 10 separate major instances in which he charged that the law had been sabotaged, including all judgments involving Anwar, the 1988 sacking of the Supreme court, the fact that judges had gone on holiday overseas with Lingam, and, among others, an allegation by Asian Wall Street Journal correspondent Raphael Pura that Lingham had written parts of a libel judgment delivered against him. Any delay in addressing the issues, Ramakhrishnan wrote, "will make a mockery of justice and turn Malaysia into a laughing stock."
In his own press conference, Anwar also called for the appointment of an independent tribunal, saying his own name had been mentioned “in the context of a conspiracy to influence the appointment of senior judges and pervert the cause of justice. In view of this, we have reason to believe that whatever has transpired in this exchange in 2002 had some bearing on the outcomes in a number of judicial proceedings, including mine.”
The video, he said, “only serves to corroborate our allegations of a political conspiracy of the highest level and corruption of the highest judicial office, seriously bringing into question the impartiality of judicial proceedings involving the affected parties.”
Anwar, once Mahathir’s deputy prime minister and anointed successor, was convicted of rape, sodomy and corruption in 1999 on charges that were widely viewed as trumped up to get rid of a political rival of Mahathir’s. Anwar was subsequently sentenced to six years in prison and to another nine in 2000. However, in 2004, after Mahathir had been replaced by Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as prime minister, Anwar’s conviction on sodomy charges was reversed and he was freed. He is still fighting the corruption charge. Mahathir is currently in intensive care following a heart bypass operation.
Lingam himself was photographed with the then Chief Justice, Eusoffe Chin, on holiday in New Zealand “under circumstances that would give rise to the inference of a serious breach of professional conduct on part of the lawyer and even more serious implications of unethical conduct on the part of the Chief Justice,” Anwar charged.
The independence of the court was severely undermined in 1988 when Mahathir sacked the country’s Lord President, Tun Salleh Abbas, and two Supreme Court judges and ended its autonomy from the government. The system largely remained under Mahathir’s thumb until he left power. Some months ago, however, the Conference of Rulers, made up of the country’s nine sultans, stunned Prime Minister Badawi by refusing to ratify his candidate to become chief judge. The position has remained vacant for several months.
Several recent cases, particularly the trial of three defendants for the brutal murder of Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu, have underscored the court’s problems. The three defendants are Abdul Razak Baginda, a close friend of Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, and two of his bodyguard detail. Two top prosecutors, Yusof Zainal Abiden, the head of the prosecution division, and Sallehuddin Saidin, the deputy prosecutor and head of the classified cases unit, are said to have threatened resignation over the case.
In addition, tycoon Eric Chia, a close friend of Mahathir’s, was abruptly acquitted recently of criminal breach of trust involving RM76.4 million of allegedly dishonestly disposed funds from the scandal-tainted Perwaja Steel Corp.
A typed verbatim transcript of Lingham’s side of the conversation which occasionally lapses into Malay language, follows:
Draft Transcript between Lawyer VK Lingam with Tun Ahmad Fairuz (then Datuk Fairuz and Chief Judge of Malaya – No 3 in the hierarchy):
“The Chief Justice said he is relative to now Agong, so he wants to stay on to 68, so, Tengku Adnan (Mansour), I told Tengku Adnan, yesterday I had a meeting with him.
He said Prime minister (Mahathir) is already very angry with him, he said no problem he is going to make you…confirm your position as PCA, working very hard then working very hard to get Tan Sri Mokhtar as Chief Justice of Malaya.
Ah, we just keep it confidential. I am working very hard on it. Then there is a letter, according to Tengku, I am going to see him tomorrow, there is a letter sent to Chief Justice, I mean Tan Sri Dzaiddin, that Datuk Heliliah, Datuk Ramli, Datuk Ramli and Datuk Ma'roop be made judges, and he rejected Dr Andrew Chui and apa itu Zainuddin Ismail lah. Because Zainuddin Ismail condemned your appointment and Tan Sri Mokhtar's appointment.
And then you also, you seem to wrote a letter for the remaining five be confirmed as judges. As per our memo I discuss with Tun Eusoff Chin and we sent the same memo to PM. I just want to get a copy letter that that has been done.
And then Tan Sri Dzaiddin said he is going to recommend six people for the court of appeal, but until today the letter hasn't come to PM. He never discussed, but neither he has sent the letter to PM. Yes he has not sent. I know it is under the constitution for judges all that is your job Datuk to send, but we don't want to make it an issue now.
Ah. Ok Actually I told Tengku Adnan to inform PM, PM to call you for a meeting. I organize it so that Tengku Adnan will call you directly. And then I got your number, I will tell him to call you directly to for you to meet PM lah. So should be ok, then ar.. correct correct, it is very important that the key players must be there.
Correct correct. Correct. You know that the same problem that Tun Eusoff Chin has. He tried to do all this and yet he has run out of soldiers. He couldn't do it because many are from the other camp. Last time was unfortunate because Tun Daim was doing everything sabotaging, otherwise how are things with you – everything is ok?. No, don't worry. You know sometimes Tan Sri Vincent that half the time they are talking about judiciary rather than doing the work. But if I don't do this part my work will be useless.
Ha ha ha. Ah yes. Correct correct correct correct. correct. Ah right susah. You see he has now up for six court of appeal judges, so that he can put his men before he retires.
Correct correct correct, ah and then ah, correct. But never-mind, I will do this, I will get Tengku Adnan to arrange for PM to call you and Tan Sri Vincent Tan for PM to call you. And you know why, actually, I am very grateful with Tan Sri Vincent Tan you know why, I brainwash you so much even I quarrel with him. One day I went to Vincent Tan house, I fire him at the night in his house. I said very hell if you don't do this who will do it?
All these people Tun Eusoff Chin, Datuk Ahmad Fairuz, Tan Sri Zainon all fought for that. Then he called Tengku Adnan. Tengku Adnan he said, saya bukan Perdana Menteri Malaysia lah, you know. If the old man doesn't want to listen to me, go to hell.
He quarreled with me. I said never mind, never mind, you talk to PM again tomorrow morning to put Datuk Ahmad Fairuz to CJM. So next day morning he went and he called me back 9.30 that he said PM has already agreed. So I said never mind, we hope for the best. So I said no harm trying, the worst that it can happen is that you lose. Being the old man, (Mahathir) is 76 years old, he gets whispers everywhere, and then you don't whisper, he get taken away by the other side. But, now PM is very alert because every time he gets letters from Tan Sri Zaidin, he called Tengku Adnan, he said discuss with Vincent, come and discuss.
Yes yes, ya. Correct correct, ya, but you see although I know PM, I am a lawyer in practice my views are.. I go through them, I go through them lah. Ah ah ah ah.
And then Zaidin will call them telling that you went saw PM and you make a big issue out of it. Oh ya, I think so, I think so.
Ok, fine fine fine fine ok ok ok ok
Ah ah correct correct. Now I heard Raja Aziz, Raja Aziz huh, spoke to my lawyer Thayalan, and another lawyer Ailan, in the high court, they have a case each other. So, Thayalan and Ailan asked Raja Aziz, how is Tan Sri Wan Adnan?
He said he is on his way down. But you know what is the shocking thing he said? Datuk Fairuz became CJM. He overruled everybody, in three months time, he is going be made VCA, and 6 months time he is going to be CJ. He said he cant think he shocked. He told us.
Ha, it seems that they are going to organize a campaign to run you down. But you just keep quite don't say anything. Even the press asked, you said I leave it to God, that's all. Don't say. I really like your message. You said you work very hard, what can I do? I leave it to God. That's the best answer datuk that you can ever be.
Ah… I will also get Tan Sri to remind PM to put a Tan Sri ship this year lah. This will elevate you, you know.
Oh yes yes yes yes. ha. XX got so fast, Tan Sri Chong waited for whole year to get Tan Sri Ship.
Ah.. My god that's why, ah. Correct ya ya ya ya right right right correct correct
Don't worry, we organize this. If Tan Sri Vincent and Tengku Adnan want to meet you privately, they will, I will call you. We organize in a private arrangement, in a very unusual place.
No don't worry, Datuk, I know how much you suffer for Tun Eusoff Chin. And Tun said Datuk Ahmad Fairuz 110% loyalty. We want to make sure our friends are there for the sake of the PM and the sake of the country.
Not for our own interest, not for our own interest. We want to make sure the country comes first. Well, you suffered so well, so much you have done. For the election, Wee Choo Keong, everything. How much, no body would have done all these.
Yes, you know. Good lah. Don't worry. I am constantly working on this.
Ya ya, don't worry don’t worry. We work hard on this. And Datuk, and then if Tan Sri Vincent and Tengku Adnan want to see you, I will organize it in such a confidential place.
Ok Datuk very best. God bless you and your family.
Ok. Thank you thank you. Bye.