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Anwar’s acquittal is sign of hope for Malaysia’s judiciary


KUALA LUMPUR (SE): The acquittal of the leader of Malaysia’s political opposition, Anwar Ibrahim, on sodomy charges on January 9, took everyone by surprise, according to Joy Wilson Appukuttan, the president of the Catholic Lawyers Society of Malaysia.

Appukuttan told UCA News on January 16 that although this one case does not by any means prove that the judiciary in Malaysia has become totally independent of the political executive, it is a sign that there is some progress being made.

He said that in recent years, the judiciary has been improving its image, which had been badly tarnished since 1988.

“That year saw one of the worst developments in Malaysian history. Lord president of the Supreme Court, Salleh Abbas, and two other Supreme Court judges were sacked under the administration of former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad,” he explained.

Appukuttan described the nation’s judiciary from the time of independence from Britain in 1957 through to 1988 as being one of the most respected in the world, adding that within the country as well, it was regarded as being one of its most credible institutions.

“There was separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary. With the 1988 incident, however, it would take a lifetime to rebuild confidence,” the president of the Catholic Lawyers society said.

“The executive cannot interfere with the judiciary, which has to be a separate and independent body. The judiciary is one institution that cannot be touched, because people need to believe that it is a place they can go to obtain justice. If it is tainted or adulterated, people will lose faith in the nation and the door will be opened to anarchy,” he continued.

The ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) government, which is dominated by the United Malays National Organisation, had the power to change the constitution, because it had more than a two-thirds majority of the seats in parliament.

The ruling government also had more than a two-thirds majority in the parliament up until the 2008 general election, when it lost two-thirds of its seats, but did manage to retain a simple majority. Furthermore, voting in the parliament is usually party line.

Appukuttan said that after 1988, a series of legal cases cast some doubts over the independence of the judiciary, and the first time Anwar faced trial for sodomy and corruption many doubts were expressed in this regard.

He was convicted and given a nine-year sentence, but the verdict was overturned in 2004 and he was released during the reign of Mahathir’s successor, Abdullah Badawi.

Appukuttan described Anwar’s second sodomy trial later in 2008 should as being one that should never have taken place. “The allegations were questionable and evidence for the alleged crime was obviously lacking. It seemed to have been a political action. Moreover, many irrelevant and nonsensical issues were brought up,” he said.

Nevertheless, Appukuttan maintains that the acquittal of Anwar still came as a surprise. “It has restored some confidence in the judiciary. Though it remains to be seen whether the judiciary is really free and fair, there is hope that we’re going in the right direction,” he commented.

He added that to date, improvements in the judiciary have been mainly in the area of administrative efficiency, such as expediting cases. Appukuttan said that under the current process, if a case is filed today, it has to be completed within six months.

“Independence of the judges is another matter,” he went on, but added, “We hope that progress in judicial reform will extend to judicial independence.”

He said that this could not have come at a better time, as in the age of the Internet and new media, people are becoming more aware and alert about what is happening. “With better access to information, young people in particular know their rights, and they want to see change,” Appukuttan noted.

He is counselling members of the current government, as well as those who one day might want to be in government, to take heed.


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