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POLITICS-MALAYSIA: Hearing Exposes Mahathir, His Corrupt Times

Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 22 2008 (IPS) - A public hearing into corruption in the higher judiciary is giving Malaysians a rare peep into the way top judges were appointed, demoted or promoted during the tenure of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.

The revelations are offering hope to lawyers, judges and civil society leaders that, for the first time in three decades, a cleanup of the judiciary is possible.

Some of the country’s most powerful and influential people, including Mahathir himself, were subpoenaed and forced to take the stand and have been answering a series of awkward questions since last week.

Others similarly shamed include chief justices, top civil servants, business tycoons and top lawyers – people inadvertently exposed in a 14-minute video clip secretly shot by the son of a businessman in 2002.

The clip records a telephone conversation between top lawyer V. K. Lingam, who often represents Mahathir, his crony Vincent Tan, and the chief justice of Malaysia Ahmad Fairuz, who retired in a cloud last December.

During the inquiry Lingam refused to confirm that he is the person pictured in the video talking into a hand phone despite overwhelming testimonies from the witness. He also denied he had ever talked with Fairuz.

Their purported conversation involves the promotion of judges “friendly” to Mahathir and his government, and how to end the careers of other judges considered to be “unfriendly and difficult” to the interest of their cabal.

The clip was recorded “inadvertently” by the son of a businessman at Lingam’s home in December 2001, but surfaced six years later and was given to opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim who made it public on Sep. 19 and demanded a full public inquiry and a major overhaul of the judiciary.

Lawyers have long demanded an overhaul, saying the judiciary was deeply corrupt and under the thumbs of well-connected businessmen and politicians. But their efforts were fruitless until the clip turned up, giving them the hard evidence they had long sought.

“The outcome of the inquiry aside, the probe is giving Malaysians a rare glimpse into the sinister aspects of the government at the very highest levels,” said human rights lawyer Sivarasah Rasiah, who was the first to view the secretly shot clip along with an aide to Anwar.

“The revelations are truly shocking and show how deeply tainted our judiciary has become,” he told IPS on the sidelines of the inquiry that is being held at the Kuala Lumpur Court Complex.

“Anwar has done a superb job in forcing the government to hold the inquiry,” he said. “What we are concerned now is for the inquiry to lead to a major cleanup of the judiciary.”

Shocking details the public has heard since the clip surfaced include lawyers sending bags, presumably filled with cash, to judges’ homes in the dead of the night. Other presents included expensive hand phones for judges and expensive handbags for their wives.

In one case a lawyer involved in a case actually wrote the judgment for a judge, indicating how close their relationship was and the total lack of respect, judicial integrity and independence.

The inquiry also received photographs showing lawyer Lingam holidaying in New Zealand with the then chief justice of Malaysia Eusoff Chin in 1996.

The picture shows the two having their arms around each other’s shoulders and their wives standing and smiling. “I bumped into him and he decided to tag along,” was the tepid answer from Chin who retired in 2001.

Like Chin, Mahathir also frequently answered “could not remember” to many question aimed at discovering the business-politician-judges nexus that lawyers say has tarnished the country’s once vaunted judiciary.

For Mahathir, who never had to face a parliamentary select committee or a public inquiry in his 22 years (1981-2003)as head of the government, last week’s questioning was a come down.

Public anger rose at Mahathir’s stock “I don’t know, I can’t remember” replies to the questions. At one point, asked why he dropped some judges recommended for promotion by the then chief justice who was highly respected by his peers, Mahathir said: “I don’t have to answer.”

According to parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang, Mahathir said “I can’t remember” 14 times during 90 minutes of questioning by a five-member panel chaired by Mohamed Haidar, a former retired judge.

“He (Mahathir) was evasive and uncharacteristically forgetful,” Lim said. “Most of the time Mahathir was evading questions to the best of his ability.”

Like many others, Lim is unhappy that the panel allowed Mahathir to “get away” easily. “We are disappointed…he should be held accountable for the dark chapter in the nation’s judicial history,” Lim said expressing disappointment over the quality of the inquiry.

“Many Malaysians get the impression that the panel members treated Mahathir with “kid’s gloves” as they were in awe of and at times even fearful of the longest-serving prime minister of the country,” Lim said.

Once highly regarded, the judiciary suffered as Mahathir systematically sacked independent judges and promoted a series of judges criticised for “spineless subservience” in a process that started in 1987.

Foreign investors, too, have shown little faith in the local judiciary preferring independent arbitration and legal redress in Singapore, Hong Kong and London.

“I have evidence to show that there is deceit and conspiracy involved between businessmen, lawyers and politicians,” Ibrahim told, the independent online news provider.

He has been subpoenaed by the commission and was fifth on the witness list but was passed up, allegedly because his testimony had become irrelevant after the maker of the video owned up to it.

“It is rather odd that I have not been called,” Anwar said adding the situation raises doubts on the conduct and integrity of the inquiry panel. “My name is mentioned in the clip and it is important I testify.”

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