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TheAge: Opponents Fear Mahathir May Nobble Judiciary
By Mark Baker

22/11/2001 2:37 pm Thu

Opponents fear Mahathir may nobble judiciary

Thursday 22 November 2001

Malaysian opposition leaders and human rights groups have warned of a possible move by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to nobble the country's increasingly independent judicial system after the appointment of a new hardline attorney-general.

They fear the appointment of controversial state prosecutor Abdul Gani Patail is a first step towards countering a new activism among Malaysia's most senior judges that has seen the government lose a string of high-profile political cases in recent months.

Mr Gani played a key role in the prosecution of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who is serving a 15-year jail sentence on internationally discredited corruption and sodomy charges.

His conduct was questioned in a Federal Court ruling in June that overturned the conviction of one of Mr Anwar's lawyers, Zainur Zakaria, on charges relating to an affidavit in which Mr Zainur had accused Mr Gani of attempting to frame Mr Anwar. The ruling criticised the judge who sentenced Mr Zainur for not questioning Mr Gani's conduct.

The leader of the opposition Democratic Action Party, Lim Kit Siang, said Mr Gani's appointment to the post of attorney-general - which administers the courts and controls all prosecutions - was "a very ominous development" for the independence of the legal system.

"The judicial climate is becoming more and more inclement. This appointment is a throwback to the legal dark ages of the past in Malaysia," he said.

The social rights group Aliran said in a statement: "It is an appointment that is not likely to enhance the prestige of our system of justice or encourage public confidence in the fairness of prosecution."

There is intense speculation that Malaysia's first woman attorney-general, Ainum Mohammad Saaid, was forced out of the job after 10 months because she was too liberal.

The leader of Malaysia's biggest opposition party, PAS, Fadzil Mohammad Noor, said claims by Ms Ainum that she was resigning for health reasons were questionable as officials had confirmed she was offered alternative positions within the government.

"The public just can't accept that the reason for her resignation is health. It's political. It is the decision of the government," he said.

There is widespread concern in legal circles that Dr Mahathir is moving to curtail the more independent stance of the judiciary since the appointment last December of the reformist Dzaiddin Abdullah as Chief Justice of the Federal Court.

In August a full bench of the court opened the way for a landmark challenge to the government's use of the draconian Internal Security Act to fight growing opposition to its rule by agreeing to hear an appeal by six prominent opposition activists jailed without trial for two years under the colonial-era law.

In June another judge ordered the release of two other opposition activists detained in April, condemning the police handling of their case and urging the scrapping of the ISA.

The Malaysian Bar Council has called a meeting today to consider its response to the appointment of Mr Gani as Attorney-General.