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Legal Row Makes Waves in Malaysia - ASWJ
By web aNtu

16/6/2000 4:49 am Fri

Subject: [sangkancil] AWSJ: Legal Row Makes Waves in Malaysia

The Asian Wall Street Journal - 14 June 00 - Asia Pacific News - p5:


Law Minister Confronts Chief Justice Over His Relations With Lawyer

By Leslie Lopez,
Staff Reporter

KUALA LUMPUR - A public confrontation between Malaysia's law minister
and its highest-ranking judge has revived a long-simmering debate over
the country's judiciary.

The controversy revolves around pictures posted on the Internet of
the Chief Justice of Malaysia's Federal Court, Eusoff Chin, spending
time in New Zealand in 1994 with a prominent lawyer who appears
frequently in Malaysian courts.

Law Minister Rais Yatim told an Australian radio stations two weeks
ago that the Malaysian administration had registered its displeasure
with the judge's behavior. "Certainly, such socializing ... is not in
keeping with the proper behavior of a judicial personality and we have
intimated to him in no uncertain terms," Datuk Rais said. Reacting to
the remark last week, Tun Eusoff said that he never discussed the matter
with Datuk Rais.

Still, the minister's comments have touched off a heated debate in
Malaysia. Tun Eusoff has defended his conduct and has chastised Datuk
Rais for not understanding the problems facing judges. He has
threatened to sue anyone suggesting that his holiday had been paid for
by someone else.

Meanwhile, senior politicians in Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed's
administration, including Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin, have
expressed support for the idea that the judiciary isn't above censure.
The Malaysian Bar Council, the country's top legal body that represents
9,000 lawyers, wants the government to appoint a commission to
investigate Tun Eusoff's conduct and to make recommendations on how to
restore public confidence in the judiciary.

Subsequent Removal

The furor comes at an awkward time for the Malaysian judiciary,
which has long faced criticism from political opposition leaders and
other public-interest groups for allegedly lacking independence. These
concerns date back to 1988, when Dr Mahathir clashed with the judiciary
over several decisions by the courts that went against his
administration. That confrontation ultimately led to the suspension of
six Supreme Court judges and the subsequent removal of three of them,
including the then head of the judiciary.

Tun Eusoff last week defended the independence of Malaysia's
judiciary. "We decide purely on merits of the case. The Prime Minister
has never called me on anything. Or any other minister for that matter.
The executive basically leaves us alone," he said.

Criticisms of the judiciary have intensified over the past 18
months, largely due to the widely publicized trials of former deputy
prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, which has attracted international scrutiny
of the Malaysian justice system. Four international legal
organizations, including the International Bar a#sociation, issued a
112-page report in Aprilsaying there were "well-founded" concerns about
judicial independence in Malaysia. "There is a widespread perception
.... that in those cases in which the government has an interest, the
jjudiciary is not independent," stated the report, which was prepared by
a three-member panel led by a judge from Scotland.

Problematic Pictures

The report also discussed, among other things, Tun Eusoff's trip to
New Zealand. The authors of the report said they had two meetings with
Tun Eusoff -- lasting about five hours -- in which a wide array of
subjects was discussed. The report said the chief justice "adamantly
denied" suggestions of improper behaviour, "pointing out that he had
been investigated by (Malaysia's) anticorruption agency, which had
cleared him".

But the issue has taken on new life with Tun Eusoff's sharp public
exchanges with Datuk Rais, the first cabinet-level government official
to openly criticize the judge's conduct.

The seeds of the current controversy was sown two years ago, when
local Web sites ran pictures showing a casually attired Tun Eusoff
posing with Malaysian lawyer V.K. Lingam. Despite efforts to Malaysian
opposition leaders to debate the matter on grounds that Tun Eusoff's
behaviour may have compromised the judiciary, the issue was never raised
publicly by Dr Mahathir's administration until Datuk Rais's remarks
during an interview with Australia's Radio National, a unit of
state-owned Australia Broadcasting Corp., on May 30 in Melbourne.

Last week, Malaysian news reports quoted Datuk Rais as saying that
when he was shown the photographs, he responded that "a lofty figure"
in the judiciary should be circumspect about socializing. "We can mix
with anyone, but a certain decorum or persona has to be upkept," he was
quoted as saying by local newspapers. Datuk Rais didn't mention the
financing of Tun Eusoff's holiday and there is no evidence in the public
domain that some one other than Tun Eusoff paid for the holidays.

Tun Eusoff bristled at the minister's remarks. At a new conference
last week, he dismissed Datuk Rais's criticism and said he "bumped into"
Datuk Lingam when he was going to visit a New Zealand "zoo". He said
the lawyer had merely "tagged along" with him. The judge also briefly
showed reporters an a#sortment of bills and bank statements, which he
said was evidence that he paid for the holiday himself.

But according to people familiar with Tun Eusoff's 1994 trip, the
meeting the chief justice and Datuk Lingam wasn't a chance encounter.
In fact, Tun Eusoff's holiday itinerary closely mirrored Datuk Lingam's
own New Zealand holiday over a period of eight days in December, these
people maintain.

Accordingto airline-ticket stubs and other travel itineraries, Tun
Eusoff and Datuk Lingam, together with their families, were booked on
the same Air New Zealand flight from Singapore to Auckland on Dec. 22,
1994, and again four days later on a flight to Christchurch. Both
families later travelled together to Queenstown on Dec 27, a 3-1/2 hour
drive from Christchurch, according to people familiar with the episode
in New Zealand.

People familiar with the trip also say that Tun Eusoff complained
of a stomach ailment on ec. 28 in Queenstown. A day later, Datuk Lingam
and Tun Eusoff spent time on a hired pleasure boat with their families.
According to people familiar with the episode, the two Malaysians rented
a 13-meter catamaran for a cruise on Lake Wakatipu just outside
Queenstown. The two families were booked on the same flights to return
to Kuala Lumpur on Dec. 30.

Tun Eusoff didn't respond to requests to discuss the matter. An
aide in his office said the chief judge was "very busy". Datuk Lingam
didn't respond to requests for comment.