Malaysia’s attorney general faces wrath of fellow lawyers

5 May 2016

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Southeast Asia Globe- By Daniel Besant (4 May 2016)

I am satisfied with the findings that the funds were not a form of graft or bribery. There was no reason given as to why the donation was made to Prime Minister Najib – that is between him and the Saudi [royal] family.”

These are the words of Malaysia’s attorney general, Mohamed Apandi Ali, at a press conference on 26 January. Many Malaysians were outraged by his barefaced exoneration of Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, of any wrongdoing in the 1MDB corruption scandal that has gripped the nation.

Abdul Gani Patail, Apandi’s predecessor, was reportedly on the cusp of filing charges against Najib in July 2015 after the revelation that nearly $700m had been deposited in one of the PM’s personal bank accounts just before the 2013 national elections. But then Patail abruptly retired for “health reasons” and Apandi was appointed. Official enquiries into Najib’s financial arrangements soon ground to a halt.

Nonetheless, Apandi’s decision over Najib’s funds did not deter multiple investigations from outside Malaysia into Najib and financial dealings linked to the government, not least by the US Department of Justice and prosecutors in Luxembourg and France. Back at home, meanwhile, Apandi himself is now the target of the Malaysian Bar Association, the organisation that represents the country’s lawyers in Peninsular Malaysia.

On 19 March, the bar association overwhelmingly passed a motion calling on Apandi to resign immediately “for the good of Malaysia, to restore public confidence and perception of the rule of law, in particular the administration of criminal justice in Malaysia”. The body also called for Azailiza binti Mohd Ahad, the solicitor general and Apandi’s deputy, to assume the role of public prosecutor in cases involving Najib and companies connected to him.

Apandi was once a treasurer for the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the largest party in the country’s ruling coalition, in Kelantan state and stood as a UMNO parliamentary candidate in 1990. Not only that, in 2013, he was the lead judge in a panel that acquitted two senior police officers of the murder of Mongolian model Altantuya Shaariibuu, the lover of one of Najib’s closest advisors. When Apandi was a judge, the jailed former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim applied for him to be dismissed from hearing his case due to his UMNO connections.

However, under Malaysia’s legal system, the Agong – the constitutional monarch – appoints the attorney general, under advice from the prime minister. Therefore, the appointment does not require the confidence of the public or even the judiciary, merely the backing of the prime minister. Apandi serves as both public prosecutor and attorney general, leaving critics such as Transparency International Malaysia and the bar to call for a separation of powers and for greater transparency.

“The motion is looking at how we can reform the attorney general’s position, because in the constitution itself [he] has certain differing roles,” said Charles Hector Fernandez, a member of the Malaysian bar and one of the instigators of the motion.

“This matter is of critical public interest,” wrote Steven Thiru, the bar’s president, in a 15 March statement. “There should be no usurpation of the judicial powers of the courts, as it is for the courts, not the attorney general, to decide on the innocence or guilt of a suspect in respect of any alleged crime.”

The bar’s motion has something of a ‘do or die’ ring to it, according to James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania. “The bar council is the last independent institution in Malaysia,” he said. “Moreover, as the body that represents lawyers in Malaysia, they have the standing to take a stand over the attorney general’s behaviour.”

And there is good reason for them to be pushing for change, said Eric Paulsen, executive director of Lawyers for Liberty, otherwise, “it looks like we’re going by the laws of the jungle”.

Paulsen believes, however, it is highly unlikely Apandi will step down. The only thing that might change this is if a royal personage were to speak out, “because royalty still command some respect”.

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