Malaysia’s prime minister has prolonged the appointments of the nation’s top two judges, a move that lawmakers, legal experts and others are criticizing as unconstitutional and is aimed, they say, at undermining the judiciary’s independence.
Prime Minister Najib Razak’s office announced Friday night that the tenures of Malaysian Chief Justice Md Raus Sharif and Court of Appeal President Zulkefli Ahmad Makinudin were being extended by three and two years, respectively. Both men were also being appointed as additional judges to the Federal Court – the nation’s highest court, according to a statement issued by the office.
“The decisions are in line with the provisions of the current Federal Constitution,” the statement said.
It said the appointments and extensions were carried out in accordance with Article 122 of the constitution and that the Malaysian king, acting on the advice of the prime minister and after consulting the Conference of Rulers – a body made up of sultans and governors who represent the 13 states that comprise the Malaysian federation – had approved these moves.
Raus was scheduled to retire on Aug. 3 and Zulkefli on Sept 27, after attaining the age of 66 years and six months, the maximum retirement age for judges who sit on the federal bench. However, an additional judge is not bound by the same age limit.
The move has provoked a backlash from rights advocates, Malaysia’s political opposition and legal experts.
“What are the special circumstances for the [Chief Justice and the Court of Appeal President] to be appointed in such controversial manner?” Eric Paulsen, executive director of local NGO Lawyers for Liberty, said in a statement Monday.
“We are indeed shocked and appalled by these appointments which can only be described as a desperate attempt by Prime Minister Najib Razak to further undermine the independence of the judiciary,” he added.
Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s jailed de facto opposition leader, weighed in on the matter in a statement issued from his cell on Monday.
“I’ve been made to understand that lawyer Shafee Abdullah was involved in providing legal advice and the foundation view to decide on the extensions of Raus and Zulkefli,” Anwar said of the lead prosecutor in the case in which Anwar is appealing his conviction in 2014 to a five-year prison term on sodomy charges.
Last month, Anwar filed a lawsuit to overturn his conviction and regain his freedom, claiming that the appointment of Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, a lawyer in private practice, as the public prosecutor in his appeal went against the attorney general’s usual practice and was unethical.
Muhammad Shafee on Saturday defended extensions of the tenures of the top two judges, saying nothing in the constitution forbade this.
“Why not utilize the best legal brains for the top job?” Shafee said in a statement on Saturday.
Bar: ‘Blatantly unconstitutional’
In a blog posting in May, former Chief Justice Abdul Hamid Mohamad raised concerns about the possibility that Najib could extend the tenure of the current top judge by appointing him as an additional judge. But such a tactic would be unconstitutional, Abdul Hamid argued, because the nation’s charter does not allow an additional judge to be picked as head of the judiciary, he said.
“The words ‘an additional judge of the Federal Court’ can only mean what they say, i.e. an additional judge of the Federal Court to do the work of a Federal Court judge, not to be the Chief Justice, the head of the Judiciary,” the ex-chief justice wrote.
Abdul Hamid also advised Md Raus to “put aside his personal interest, rise to the occasion” and decline the appointment.
Malaysian Bar President George Varughese echoed this, calling on both Raus and Zulkefli to turn down their extensions.
“The Malaysian Bar is of the considered view that these appointments are blatantly unconstitutional,” Varughese said in a statement issued on Sunday.
Article 122 of the constitution clearly states that the chief justice and any additional judge must be two distinct persons, and not the same person, and that the same principle applies to the president of the Court of Appeal, Varughese added.
‘Last bastion of justice’
Meanwhile, the lawyer for former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said the latest judicial appointments were another attempt by the country’s leader to curtail the powers of the institution that is the “last bastion of justice.”
Mahathir, Najib’s bitter foe and former boss, has led calls for the prime minister to resign over corruption allegations linked to a financial mismanagement scandal surrounding state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
The judicial moves were carried out, Mahathir attorney Haniff Khatri Abdulla told BenarNews, “... in order for him [Najib] to remain in power, despite the long outstanding and unresolved mother of all scandals, 1MDB.”
Hata Wahari contributed to the report.