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TheAge: Malaysia drops sedition charge
By Mark Baker

15/1/2002 3:04 am Tue

[Wartawan dan peguam adalah dua profesyen yang amat menggerunkan Mahathir sebab itulah mereka sentiasa diancam dan dicekam. Inilah dua bidang penting (kerana berunsur analisa dan pendedahan) yang bisa mengubah arah politik tanah-air. Inilah bidang yang mampu membunuh atau terbunuh sendirian hanya dengan beberapa patah perkataan.... - Editor]

Malaysia drops sedition charge

Tuesday 15 January 2002

The Malaysian Government yesterday bowed to intense international pressure and abandoned a prosecution that could have led to the country's most famous criminal barrister being jailed for sedition.

Karpal Singh was acquitted and discharged after Attorney-General Abdul Gani Patail shocked and delighted international legal observers by withdrawing the sedition charge an hour after the trial began in the High Court in Kuala Lumpur.

Mr Karpal had been charged over comments he made while defending former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.

Mr Gani told the court he had been swayed by the outcry in legal circles over the unprecedented charge, which was seen to challenge the principle of a lawyer's privilege to speak openly in court while defending a client.

Mr Karpal, 60, was charged for suggesting during Mr Anwar's trail on corruption and sex charges, in September, 1999, that the former heir apparent to Dr Mahathir Mohamad may have been poisoned deliberately after evidence was produced that his prison food contained arsenic.

An outspoken human rights advocate and deputy leader of Malaysia's opposition Democratic Action Party, Mr Karpal has defended several high-profile Western prisoners, including Australians Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers, executed for drug trafficking in 1986.

A jubilant crowd of local supporters, foreign legal observers and diplomats surrounded Mr Karpal as he left the court.

"It's a relief after having this hanging over me so long," said Mr Karpal, who faced a three-year prison sentence if convicted.

"This is a step in the right direction for Malaysia's legal system but I am surprised that they decided to wait for such a long time before dropping the case."

Legal associations throughout the Commonwealth had denounced the charge as a threat to barristers' independence. Amnesty International said the case had undermined "the already shaky confidence in the rule of law and the administration of justice" in Malaysia.

"It was the first time that any lawyer has been charged with saying something in the interests of his client in a court of law," said Perth QC Mark Trowell, who attended yesterday's hearing for the Australian Bar Association and Australian Law Council.

The charge was withdrawn after Justice Augustine Paul - who jailed Mr Anwar for 15 years - refused leave for Commonwealth legal representatives to be granted formal observer status and reacted angrily to Mr Karpal's application for the judge to be disqualified from hearing the case.

Justice Augustine later ordered the court registrar to seek a Malaysian Bar Council disciplinary committee hearing against Mr Karpal for misconduct in challenging the judge's impartiality.

Mr Gani, a tough former public prosecutor who became Attorney-General this month, said his office had received many representations from local and international legal bodies over the charging of Karpal Singh, whose comments had been made during an intense trial.

"Today, having reconsidered the circumstances and the representations, and taking into consideration the public interest, the public prosecutor is of the view that it is appropriate to exercise his discretion ... to discontinue and withdraw the charge," Mr Gani said.

But he said the allegation of an attempt to poison Mr Anwar remained baseless. While traces of arsenic had been found in Mr Anwar's prison food, the amounts were within permissible levels and investigations had shown no evidence of impropriety.