Thursday, June 22, 2006

Conduct of judges - looking back to year 2000 episode

The recent controversy involving the conduct of judges reminded me of the high profile case way back in the year 2000. The person in question then was none other than the Chief Justice Eusoff Chin. He was also the subject of the so-called "poison pen letter" written by former high court judge Syed Ahmad Idid.

The episode came into light when photographs showing Eusoff, lawyer V.K. Lingam and their families holidaying together in New Zealand in December 1994 can be found on the Internet.

Lingam represents Berjaya Group's chief Vincent Tan in the M.G.G. Pillai vs Tan Sri Vincent Tan case. Both he (Lingam) and Vincent Tan were also photographed while on vacation with the then Attorney-General Mohtar Abdullah and their respective families in Italy in 1994.

The then minister in the prime minister's department (de facto law minister) Rais Yatim described it as "inappropriate" for the Chief Justice to holiday with the counsel of a prominent business tycoon. Rais said this in an interview with Australia's Radio National on 26 May 2000. He was in Canberra for the 2nd Australia-Malaysia Conference at the Australian National University.

In the interview, Rais also said that he was aware of the problems within the judiciary, but proper enquiries and political will were needed before changes could be made.

Rais said that the system placed on the judiciary of Malaysia needed certain reexamination, and for Malaysia perhaps to be inculcated with a new sense of value system. However, he added that change would have to come largely from the legal community. Rais said that his previous criticism of the judiciary still prevailed.

(Rais wrote a scathing book about the conflict between the rule of law and executive power in Malaysia in 1995, titled "Freedom under Executive Power in Malaysia - A Study of Executive Supremacy".)

About a month later (June 2000) Eusoff told the press that he had "bumped into Lingam" and their meeting was not planned but was a coincidence. He also said that the pictures posted on the Internet were "posed pictures" and that they were taken at Lingam's request and that there was nothing he could do except to have the pictures snapped.

A few days later, the Bar Council said it would convene an emergency general meeting to examine issues relating to the integrity of the judiciary following the controversy surrounding the Chief Justice.

Bar Council president Sulaiman Abdullah said that it was "imperative" that the Malaysian Bar deliberate on issues raised by the recent events as they had "given rise to serious public concern as to the administration of justice, the judiciary, the proper relationship between members of the judiciary and members of the Bar, and most importantly, the respective roles of the executive and the judiciary".

However, on June 23 high court judge Dr R.K. Nathan granted an injunction preventing the Bar from convening the emergency general meeting scheduled for June 23. Lawyer K. Raja Segaran had filed a suit against the Malaysian Bar and 11 Bar Council members seeking a declaration from the court that the meeting as well as a circular issued to council members and notice informing lawyers of the EGM is ultra-vires the Legal Profession Act, contemptuous and seditious.

The high court judgement had given the perception that the judicial process was being used to stifle freedom of expression, said the then United Nations special rapporteur Param Curamaswamy.

"If the legal profession is not able to have the freedom to assemble and discuss affairs in the judiciary, which is its legitimate right, who else can?" he was quoted as saying in an interview with malaysiakini, the internet news portal.

In the interview, Param also said that judges are not above the law although they have certain insulations to secure their independence.

"It will be an abuse of the judicial power to use these insulations to suppress or stifle exposure of any misconduct on their part. If they are seen misconducting, then the public must be free to express and complain. To hear such expression stifled particularly through the judicial process is beyond belief."

On June 14, prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad was quoted as saying that the issue of Eusoff Chin's alleged misbehaviour is being politicised by the Bar Council.

"There is some political agenda (behind the Bar's proposal for a tribunal to investigate the case), and it may be connected with other things that are happening in the country."

(The Bar said it would propose, at a extraordinary general meeting on June 23, that a tribunal or royal commission of inquiry be set up to investigate Eusoff's alleged misbehaviour in relation to a holiday to New Zealand in 1994. A similar tribunal was appointed in 1988 to remove the then Lord President Salleh Abbass.)

Is Mahathir the man behind the "cannon" aimed at the neck of Mohtar Abdullah, the then attorney-general investigating the "poison-pen letter" episode?

Meanwhile, a United Kingdom-based private investigation agency has raised a number of fresh allegations regarding the New Zealand holiday of the Chief Justice and lawyer Lingam.

According to reports prepared by a private eye Bowman Investigations, Eusoff and Lingam flew together with their families for their Christmas holiday in New Zealand in 1994.

Copies of Eusoff's itinery and Lingam's counterfoil air tickets, which Bowman's team of investigators said they obtained, allegedly shyow that both took the same flight from Singapore to Auckland, and within New Zealand. (Eusoff told the press that he had "bumped into Lingam" and their meeting was not planned.)

The investigating agency said that Lingam's party flew to Singapore on Singapore Airlines on Dec 22, 1994 and took a connecting flight to Auckland. Also on the same day, Eusoff and his family took a Malaysian Airlines flight to Singapore and joined Lingam's flight in business class to Auckland.

During the eight-day tour, Eusoff was accompanied by his wife Rosaini Mustaffa, daughter Zubaidah and son Johan while Lingam was with his wife K.Gnanajothy, and daughters Sivashahki and Sivajothy.

The Eusoff Chin's holiday episode case was said to be closed. No action to be taken either by the executive by way of a tribunal appointed by the King or by the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA). As far as I know, the ACA is free to investigate but not free to prosecute especially involving VVIPs such as ministers, royalties, judges and "certain politicians". Do not blame the ACA, being civil servants, their hands are tied.

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