Malaysian court overturns graft conviction of state land agency’s former chairman

Ili Shazwani Ihsan and Noah Lee
Kuala Lumpur
Malaysian court overturns graft conviction of state land agency’s former chairman Mohd. Isa Abdul Samad (grey suit), a former chairman of the state land development agency FELDA, speaks to reporters while flanked by his lawyers, Salehuddin Saidin (right) and Abu Bakar Isa Ramat (left), at the Palace of Justice, Putrajaya, Malaysia, March 6, 2024.
[S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

Malaysia’s appeals court on Wednesday overturned the corruption conviction and six-year prison sentence imposed on a former chairman of the state land agency, saying the prosecution lost credibility after it altered charges mid-trial.

The acquittal of Mohd. Isa Abdul Samad, the former official and a United Malays National Organization (UMNO) member, could again fuel allegations of political interference in the justice system after similar actions involving UMNO members in recent months. 

UMNO supports the alliance government of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and is part of it as well.

Mohd. Isa had been found guilty in February 2021 of accepting 3 million ringgit (U.S. $634,000) in bribes to approve the purchase of a hotel when he headed the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda). He has been free on bail pending his appeal.

The judgment, read by Justice Vazeer Alam Mydin Meera, said that a prosecution must stick to charges filed, adding that in the case against Mohd. Isa it did not.

“The prosecution cannot change the goal post midstream. They must keep to the particular stated charges as they stand,” Vazeer Alam said, quoting from the judgment.

“The charges were amended once but the reason for the gratification [alleged bribe] stated in the original charges remained the same in the amended charges. … Hence, the appeal against the conviction and sentence in respect of all charges is allowed and the order of the High Court is set aside. The appellant is acquitted and discharged.”

Felda’s logo is seen at its headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Feb. 7, 2018. [Lai Seng Sin/Reuters]

Defense attorney Salehuddin Saidin told reporters after the ruling that his client was acquitted of all nine convictions for corruption. 

As of Wednesday evening, the prosecution had not decided whether to appeal the decision to the next level, which is the Federal Court, local media reported.

“We have one more tier of appeal and if the prosecutors decide to proceed, we are ready to take on the case to the next level,” Salehuddin said.

Isa Samad was charged in December 2018 over offenses that he allegedly committed at Felda’s office in Kuala Lumpur between July 21, 2014, and Dec. 11, 2015.

The former official had been sentenced to a six-year jail term for each conviction, which the court had ordered he serve concurrently.

Anwar under scrutiny again

After the ruling, Mohd. Isa said he was not surprised by the outcome.

“I have expected there shouldn’t be any problem [with the appeal], but let the process continue and we would accept any verdict,” he said.

“Finally, my family and I could live a normal life again.”

Mohd. Isa is a former chief minister of Negeri Sembilan state and was appointed Felda chairman in 2011 by then-Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has since been found guilty of corruption and was imprisoned last year in a 1MDB-related case.

UMNO previously suspended the former Felda chief for six years after an internal audit found that he had bought votes.  He quit UMNO in 2018 to run as an independent in a by-election because the party did not nominate him, but rejoined last year.

Following the appeals court dropping his conviction, Mohd. Isa became yet another UMNO member to benefit from a court’s ruling since Anwar became prime minister in the alliance government with the party.

Malaysia’s appeals court in December upheld Najib’s acquittal in a separate case – for audit tampering in the 1MDB financial scandal – after prosecutors missed a crucial deadline for filing documents.

In September 2023, a court dropped 47 corruption charges against Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, UMNO chairman and deputy prime minister, after prosecutors requested the move. 

Activists slammed the development, saying it had brought serious doubt to Anwar government’s anti-graft credentials.

Two days before Zahid was cleared, Bung Mokhtar Radin, a state UMNO leader, saw charges of accepting bribes and offering inducements dismissed.

And last month, the Malaysia’s Pardons Board cut in half Najib’s 12-year prison sentence in the 1MDB-related case, a move analysts said again raised doubts about the sincerity of the Anwar government’s anti-graft campaign.

Until the UMNO-led coalition Barisan Nasional’s rout in the historic 2018 election and its dismal performance again in 2022, Felda’s beneficiaries were a guaranteed voting bloc for UMNO because the party portrayed itself as the protector of ethnic Malays.

Set up in 1956 under a poverty eradication program, Felda distributed farm land to rural ethnic Malay farmers. It was the brainchild of Abdul Razak Hussein, Najib’s late father and Malaysia’s second prime minister.


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