Najib discharges most of his defense team during final appeal hearings

Muzliza Mustafa
Putrajaya, Malaysia
Najib discharges most of his defense team during final appeal hearings Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak waves to reporters as he walks into a federal courtroom for a hearing in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Aug. 19, 2022.
S. Mahfuz/BenarNews

Updated at 1:03 p.m. ET on 2022-08-19

Malaysia’s highest court on Friday rebuffed another attempt by former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s chief attorney to delay the final appeal over the ex-leader’s conviction linked to the 1MDB corruption scandal, after Najib let go most of the lawyers on his new defense team.

As the prosecution was presenting its arguments, lead defense attorney Hisyam Teh Poh Teik – the only member of the defense team left after Najib discharged his other lawyers – requested that the Federal Court judges allow him to submit a new application on Aug. 25 seeking to postpone the appeal.

Hisyam argued that he needed more time to prepare for his client’s defense. The five-judge panel swiftly rejected his request.

“[I have said] many times no adjournment on this appeal. We will proceed as scheduled,” said Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat.

Hisyam then said he had no submission to make in the appeal, to which Tengku Maimun asked: “Not even [next] Tuesday?”

“Yes, not even Tuesday,” Hisyam replied.

The top judge said the court would give the defense the weekend and Monday to prepare its submission, but Hisyam responded that this would not change anything.

“It’s your liberty to do so. But you are counsel on record. We will see on Tuesday,” the judge replied.

Outside the courtroom, Hisyam told reporters that the prosecution had rested its case.

“We were asked to come back on Tuesday. I told the court, as far as I am concerned, I am not making any submission. I told the lordships,” Hisyam said.

As he wound down the prosecution’s presentation of its case on Friday, lead attorney V. Sithambaram said the court could dismiss the appeal altogether.

“The court in this instance can dismiss the appeal when there is no reply to the submission to decide the case accordingly,” he argued, citing past precedents.

Hisyam did not raise a single objection during the prosecution’s oral submission.

The hearings are scheduled to resume on Tuesday but it’s not clear what may happen.

Among the potential scenarios, the judges might hand down an immediate verdict or set a date for a decision that will determine whether Najib becomes the first sitting or former prime minister in Malaysian history to go to prison. 

Hisyam Teh Pok Teik, the chief defense lawyer for former Prime Minister Najib Razak, walks toward the courtroom at the Federal Court in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Aug. 19, 2022. [S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

Inside the courtroom, the second row of the defense bench, usually occupied by the other lawyers, was empty throughout the hearing on Friday, leaving Hisyam as Najib’s lone standing counsel.

Najib is seeking to have his 12-year sentence and 2020 conviction on charges of massive abuse of power and other crimes overturned.  

Before prosecutors resumed their oral arguments on Friday morning, Hisyam informed the court about Najib’s decision to discharge other members of the legal team from Zaid Ibrahim Suflan TH Liew & Partners (ZIST).

It was not immediately clear why he took the decision to discharge most of his legal team and how this could help his defense.

Zaid Ibrahim, a former law minister, led the team hired at the end of July after Najib dismissed his long-time legal defense team.

In a statement on Friday, Zaid said Najib’s decision “was prompted by his belief that his lawyers cannot serve any useful purpose as lawyers for him anymore.

“Najib believes that the prevailing assumption of the judges is that the reorganization of his legal team toward the end of last month was part of a tactical ploy and a ruse to stifle and stall proceedings so as to avoid or delay the final judgment and sentence to be passed on him or for political reasons,” Zaid’s statement said. “As a politician myself, I can confirm that this unfortunate assumption is furthest from the truth.”

He also claimed the fresh evidence the defense tried to admit earlier this week “would have had a nuclear effect” on the hearing.

On Tuesday, the Federal Court turned down the request by the defense lawyers to allow the new evidence, which would require a retrial. They argued that the Kuala Lumpur High Court judge who presided over Najib’s trial and conviction had an alleged conflict of interest.

The judges did not find any link that could lead to “a real danger of bias,” and there was “no miscarriage of justice,” said Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat, the chief justice who led the panel.

In his statement, Zaid questioned the court’s finding.

“It is beyond belief that the highest court in the land would deny … Najib the right to adduce relevant material and necessary evidence to ensure that the truth is established and justice is done,” Zaid said. The former prime minister is “at a critical point” in the appeals “with his personal liberty at stake.”

A day earlier, Hisyam, who was appointed as Najib’s principal lawyer at the end of last month, asked the judges to excuse him because the scope and depth of the appeal, arguing as well that he did not have enough time to prepare. The judges rejected his request.

Earlier this week, the top court rejected another Hisyam request to delay the hearing for three to four months. It ruled Najib knew about the appeal dates, fixed in April, but replaced his legal team in late July.

The former prime minister was convicted in 2020 of seven counts, including abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering, linked to 42 million ringgit (U.S. $9.4 million) of SRC International money found in his bank accounts. In addition to being sentenced to a dozen years in prison, he was fined 210 million ringgit ($47 million).

SRC International is a subsidiary of 1MDB, a state investment fund established by Najib in 2009, when he served as prime minister and finance minister. 

Last December, the Court of Appeal upheld the conviction.

Najib, 69, denies all allegations and has yet to serve a single day in jail and is out on 2 million ringgit ($448,500) bail.

Bar: Justice system ‘brought to disrepute’

Najib did not issue a statement on Friday, but late in the day, the Malaysian Bar Association issued a statement that heavily criticized the moves made by Najib and his legal team.

The bar condemned what it described as “vicious and unwarranted attacks or threats levelled on the Judiciary and the Chief Justice as a result of the unfolding events at the Federal Court in this case.”    

“The nation is witnessing our justice system being abused and brought to disrepute through the frantic acts and numerous attempts to postpone the hearing of the case,” according to an excerpt from the statement attributed Karen Cheah Yee Lynn, president of the Malaysian Bar.

“It has been observed that Dato’ Sri Najib Razak has abruptly discharged his legal team again today, making it the second time he is resorting to such tactics,” she said. “The decision to change lawyers so late at this stage was his. Therefore, any purported injustice he claims himself to be in, if any, is surely self-inflicted.”

Subel Rai Bhandari contributed to this report from Bangkok.


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