Dr. Tahseen Mahmood Aslam describes an important decision on the Mighty sent to jail
Dato Sri Haji Mohammad Najib bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak mighty sent to jail was considered a mighty untouchable and his titled status in Malaysia shielded him from any harm even when he was found to guilty of acts of omission and commission while he was prime minister of Malaysia. He had challenged the judiciary for two years since his conviction and 12-year prison sentence over money laundering and abuses of power charges and in the end his lawyers had filed a motion to disqualify Malaysia’s most senior judge and the country’s first female chief justice, from hearing his final appeal. Outside the court, Najib’s supporters gathered, protesting that he was not getting justice. Despite the 42 criminal charges filed against him, he remains popular and influential but Chief Justice Tun Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat was unmoved.
The tough lady Chief Justice ordered Najib’s lawyers to get on with any submissions they wanted to make and then, after a break for lunch, flanked by the four other judges on the five-member panel, she read out the 15-page verdict. She found Najib’s conviction and sentence sound and not excessive and the complaints raised in his appeal to be devoid of merit. She declared that the defence is so inherently inconsistent and incredible that it does not raise a reasonable doubt on the prosecution’s case. Badly unnerved, Najib fell back in his chair, looking stunned. Within a few hours, a man accustomed to celebrity treatment found himself in a plain prison cell.
Najib’s fate is very unusual as it was considered almost impossible for such a figure to be brought down by a rigorous and transparent series of trials. It is widely acknowledged that despite all the impressive economic and social gains made in the region, its judiciaries remain weak, often corrupt, and susceptible to political pressure. Even in Malaysia, which inherited relatively strong and independent judiciary when it became free of British colonial rule in 1957, political interference has compromised the reputation of the courts. So the clarity of the verdict against Najib has been widely welcomed.
There was widespread appreciation of this decision and the people termed it as having restored their faith of the public in the independence of Malaysian judiciary. During the appeal, the Bar Council berated Najib’s team and his party UMNO, for its attempts to undermine public trust in the courts. It was mentioned that Najib’s conviction signals a return to form for the Malaysian judiciary, which had fallen from its heights of independence. Many observers cited 1988 as the year in which the judiciary became both weakened and politicised and this predicament was initiated by the then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad who sacked the Chief Justice and two other senior judges to ensure he won a power struggle within UMNO.
The courts were then used to bring down Dr. Mahathir’s political rival, Anwar Ibrahim, after he was sacked from the government in 1998 in a series of trials widely condemned by human rights groups as unfair. It was ironically Dr. Mahathir’s dramatic reconciliation and renewed alliance with his former political rival Anwar Ibrahim which allowed the opposition to inflict its first ever election defeat on UMNO in 2018 – and gave the judiciary the chance to re-establish its independence.
In 2015, when the scale of the 1MDB financial scandal became known, Najib simply sacked his attorney-general, just as he was about to file criminal charges against the prime minister, and appointed a replacement who promptly cleared him. The new attorney general said that the hundreds of millions dollars found in Najib’s personal bank account were a donation from an unnamed member of the Saudi royal family. However, the resoluteness shown by Malaysia’s courts is in stark contrast to the rest of the region.
The events in the Federal Court of Malaysia this week have encouraged many Malaysians to believe that the judiciary is once again ready to perform its proper role. They point out that the judiciary is the last bastion for defending the rule of law, in a democratic country that has a separation of powers. They are the checks and balances in the system as where the executive and the legislature have gone down the wrong path, the judiciary must be independent enough to correct that. With a strong and independent judiciary, as displayed in Malaysia in this case, there is plenty of hope for true democracy to flourish in our country.
This decision is required to be emulated particularly in the countries of the region including notionally democratic countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines where the courts often deliver questionable or confusing verdicts and are accused of being ridden with corruption and of being swayed by powerful groups or individuals. This decision may also open eyes of the concerned circles in Pakistan where the manipulation of judicial system is widely distrusted. TW