By Baradan Kuppusamy
KUALA LUMPUR, Sep 24 (IPS) - An explosive, eight-minute video clip, that opposition lawmakers allege implicates a controversial lawyer and a top judge by showing them conspiring to 'fix' high profile cases and the promotion of judges, has shaken the country and sparked widespread demands for an investigation and overhaul of the judiciary.
The 2002 video conversation also implicates former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, a business tycoon, a sitting minister and at least four serving judges.
SUARAM, a leading human rights organisation has described the clip as "the most scandalous and shameful episode in the history of (the) Malaysian judiciary." Elizabeth Wong, activist for SUARAM, said ''it is an unforgivable act of abuse of power of the highest order''. ''The exposure has a permanent, crippling effect on public and international confidence in our judicial system.''
The blatant contents of the clip and the public outcry it sparked have forced the Malaysian Bar to take a tougher than usual stand. It is demanding an immediate and formal inquiry by persons of impeccable integrity, dismissal of the judge and disciplinary action against the lawyer.
Lawyers are, for the first time in recent history, organising a protest march and plan to submit, on Wednesday, a memorandum demanding that Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi order an inquiry. They also plan to boycott court hearings if no formal inquiry is announced
"Rumours and allegations of such machinations have been rife (for a long time)," said Bar Council president Ambiga Sreenevasan in a statement. ''With the emergence of this video clip, the concerns expressed by various quarters in relation to the judiciary can no longer be swept aside,'' she said.
But lawyers, opposition law makers and civil society NGOs are going beyond tough statements to take proactive measures to force a through reform of the judiciary, something they say, is long overdue.
They are piling pressure on the government to set up a Royal Commission of Inquiry as provided for in the constitution.
Influential individuals are also speaking up demanding a formal investigation saying the scandal, if ignored, would irreparably damage the country.
Two internationally respected former presidents of Transparency International Malaysia, Param *****araswamy and Tunku Abdul Aziz Ibrahim, have weighed in, demanding a formal inquiry into the scandal.
Current president of Transparency International Malaysia, Ramon Navaratnam said: "The integrity, accountability and transparency of our government and the judiciary will be open to speculation and even erosion of public confidence if this video clip is not treated with the seriousness and utmost priority that it deserves."
Opposition lawmakers plan to petition the King to order an inquiry, an unusual step that could anger the government.
Several civil society leaders have urged lawyers to "purge and cleanse" the judiciary boycotting the courts until such time when an Independent Commission of Inquiry is set up.
Expressing the general public outrage, prominent human rights lawyer Sivarasah Rasiah said: "This matter is too blatant and too appalling to be swept under the carpet."
"There must be a formal inquiry and a major clean of the tainted judiciary," Rasiah told IPS. "After seeing and hearing the clip the people’s confidence in the judiciary is shaken...they want an immediate clean up," said Rasiah, who is also vice-president of the National Peoples Party led by opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim.
The clip, made public by Anwar at a packed press conference last week, was secretly shot in 2002 by an unnamed source whose identity Anwar has refused to reveal. Anwar said the clip was given to him only last week and after viewing it, "I decided to make it public immediately."
"The people have a right to know the contents...to know how low the judiciary can go to serve the political masters," Anwar said. "This video recording implicates the highest office of judiciary...it is mentioned in the context of a conspiracy to influence the appointment of senior judges and pervert the cause of justice," Anwar told reporters.
Anwar was anointed successor to Mahathir Mohamad until his sacking in 1998, when he was hit with sodomy and corruption charges that landed him in jail for six years. The sodomy conviction was later overturned but the corruption verdict stands, barring Anwar from standing for public office for five years until April 13, 2008. "I have been vindicated," Anwar said. "Here is the hard evidence that I am innocent and a victim of high level conspiracy."
Despite the mounting demands, Abdullah has rejected a formal inquiry but has ordered the police to investigate the "authenticity" of the clip describing the corruption allegations as "very serious and damaging."
Malaysian’s mainstream media, while giving limited reporting of the scandal, has stopped short of naming the judge or the prominent lawyer possibly fearing multi-million dollar damage suits.
But Anwar and parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang and the independent ‘Malaysiakini’ online news portal say that the clip shows a conversation between a senior lawyer who, often acts for Mahathir Mohamad, and the current chief justice of Malaysia, Ahmad Fairuz.
The lawyer is currently overseas and could not be reached for comments while an aide of Ahmad Fairuz said "no comments" in a two paragraph letter published by Malaysiakini last week.
However senior minister Nazri Aziz told Bernama, the official news agency, on Sunday that Ahmad has contacted him to deny he was the person on the phone with the lawyer.
"The video clip merely shows a telephone conversation between the lawyer and another person. We don’t know exactly what they are talking about," said Fu Ah Kiow, deputy internal security minister.
Police said they will call up the lawyer for questioning. Malaysia's attorney general Ghani Patail told the mass circulation ‘The Star’ newspaper, "we are studying the video now and will decide later what to do."
However such "non-committal" statements have angered opposition lawmakers who want to see open investigations by the organs of state. "It is clear from the video that our judiciary has been compromised for many years and completely made subservient to powerful individuals," opposition legislator Kula Segaran said.
Lawmakers are readying to take up the issue when parliament reconvenes on Oct. 22 to debate an emergency motion on the widening scandal.