Najib’s sentence reduction: Has mercy robbed justice from the nation?

Convict Najib - THE STAR

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The Malaysian Bar expresses its deep disappointment over the reduction of former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s prison sentence and fine following his conviction by the courts in the SRC International case, as announced by the Pardons Board through the Prime Minister’s Department on 2 February 2024.

The SRC International case, which saw Najib being hauled to face justice before the Judiciary to answer for his egregious crimes against the nation, took four long years across all levels of the superior courts in Malaysia, beginning with its inception on 4 July 2018 when he was first charged in the Sessions Court, until 23 August 2022, when the Federal Court upheld Najib’s conviction and sentence, as originally pronounced by the High Court.  

Much judicial time, taxpayers’ expenses and costs were expended to ensure justice was meted out by the judiciary in imposing punishments that fit the crimes committed by Najib.

The Federal Court’s decision, which should have brought an end to all possible avenues of appeal for Najib, represented more than just a victory for Malaysians.

It was a message to the world that Malaysia was not afraid to bring to heel all those who break the law, regardless of their station or status in life.

It was a message that Malaysia was committed to good governance and upholding the rule of law – that those who dared to make the citizens suffer for money laundered to the detriment of the nation must pay for their crimes and be continually deterred from committing such crimes.

It was a message that perpetrators of such crimes against the nation should not be spared so easily for the huge debts incurred that would eventually be passed on and undertaken by the citizens of Malaysia.

It was a message that brought credibility to the administration of justice in the country and to the Malaysian Judiciary.

The Pardons Board’s recent announcement puts enormous doubt in the eyes of citizens of Malaysia, as well as the world, and the “Madani” [civil and compassionate] government’s commitment to upholding the rule of law and to eradicating corruption.

It cannot be emphasised enough that the crimes committed by Najib are unlike other crimes, due to the rippling effect it has on Malaysians. Each Malaysian citizen took it as a personal betrayal of the power and trust entrusted to Najib as a Prime Minister, when he abused his power and pilfered from the nation’s coffers – money that should have been used to develop Malaysia for the benefit of Malaysians.

READ MORE:  Ramifications of Najib's sentence reduction

The Malaysian Bar asserts that the executive has lost its moral authority to address the public and to purportedly defend their fight against corruption, when it is abundantly clear that, in spite of the entire nation being embarrassed and suffering from the crimes committed by Najib, singular and preferential treatment was given to him through the Pardons Board.

The reduction of Najib’s sentence and fine was abhorrently disproportionate to the gravity of the crime committed by him.

It is undeniable that the Agong would be fully aware of the doctrine of separation of powers, which determines three branches, namely the executive, legislature and judiciary – but it should also be noted that one branch may overshadow another or two branches may necessarily overlap.

Such is the situation that has come to pass, where the decision of the courts to punish Najib with a prison term of 12 years and a fine of RM210m was disproportionately reduced to a prison term of six years and a fine of RM50m.

The effect of this reduction of Najib’s punishment greatly diminishes the due process and administration of justice in Malaysia, as well as the exemplary work done by the judiciary, lawyers, prosecutors and witnesses who were involved throughout the SRC International case.

The Malaysian Bar underscores that there must be a full measure of recognition towards the legitimacy of the decisions of the judiciary and the justice meted out by the courts.

It is recognised that the Agong’s exercise of power is mandated under the Federal Constitution.  Such “power” must be distinguished from “discretion” as articulated under Article 40 of the Constitution.

Where there is a “power”, the Agong acts with advice, on advice, and “shall accept in accordance with such advice”. In the light of Article 40(1A) of the Constitution, the Malaysian Bar takes the position that the granting of a pardon is not a discretionary power and must be exercised on advice.

Such being the case, the issuance of the announcement under the Prime Minister’s Department is rather telling of the role the executive played in the Pardons Board for the Agong to accept the advice and act accordingly under the Constitution.  

In contrast, matters in which the Agong has “discretionary” powers are restricted under Article 40(2) of the Constitution, and pardons do not form part of the Agong’s “discretionary” powers.

READ MORE:  Court proceedings on Najib's pardon should be conducted openly

The Malaysian Bar also finds it equally disturbing that the Madani government has chosen to curb the freedom of speech, as guaranteed in the Constitution, by choosing to silence dissent using the convenient excuse that the Pardons Board’s announcement concerns the “three Rs” (religion, race and royalty) issues, when in reality, the overwhelming outcry by Malaysians is an exercise of the right to express their utmost dissatisfaction that the justice they sought by participating in the 2018 and 2022 general elections all came to naught as a result of the decision to reduce Najib’s sentence.

As previously highlighted by the Malaysian Bar,4 Article 42(1) of the Constitution empowers the Agong to grant pardons, reprieves and respites in respect of all offences which have been tried by court martial and all offences committed in the federal territories of Kuala Lumpur, Labuan and Putrajaya.

Indeed, in the case of Superintendent of Pudu Prison & Ors V Sim Kie Chon [1986], the Supreme Court ruled that the Agong’s power to pardon under the Constitution cannot be justiciably reviewed.  

The case of Juraimi bin Husin v Board of Pardons, State of Pahang & Ors [2002] further affirmed that the Agong’s decision to pardon or otherwise is not subject to judicial review.

Whether the apex court will change its stance remains to be tested.

The Malaysian Bar observes that the manner in which the pardons process is carried out is devoid of consistency. Najib began serving his sentence on 23 August 2022, some 17 months before the Pardons Board issued its statement on 2 February 2024.

This is contrasted with the case of Affandi Abdul Rahim,6 who spent over 20 years languishing in prison after being sentenced to life behind bars in 2001 for a firearms-related offence, which did not involve the loss of life nor billions of ringgit from the coffers of the country affecting all citizens. Yet, there have been no updates on Affandi’s case that the Malaysian Bar is aware of.

What is the justification behind this difference in treatment?

The recent announcement by the Pardons Board highlights the need for reforms to our institutions, so as to provide safeguards and re-establish its credibility, specifically with respect to the composition of the Pardons Board. 

Article 42(5) of the Constitution provides that the Pardons Board consists of, among others, the attorney general (or his or her representative) and the chief minister of the state – who in the case of the federal territories, is the minister of the federal territories.  

READ MORE:  Najib Razak’s pardon - sentence, interrupted

In order to prevent the influence of the executive and to ensure independence in the pardons process, it is necessary to reduce, if not completely eliminate, the role of the government in the Pardons Board.

To this end, an amendment is required to remove the influence of the attorney general and the minister of federal territories or chief ministers of states in the Pardons Board, and to appoint independent persons to the Pardons Board to ensure inclusivity in terms of expressions from the public.

A further reform to the Pardons Board would be to introduce safeguards that ensure such power is exercised sparingly, as well as within clear boundaries and established circumstances or categories. Remorse and repentance surely must be a substantial part of such an exercise.

To date, after having served one year and five months in prison, Najib has yet to show remorse, any form of repentance nor apology for committing the offences of criminal breach of trust, abuse of power and money laundering, for which he was convicted.

The Malaysian Bar unequivocally insists that the deterioration of due process cannot go unchecked and unimpeded. It is alarming that this announcement by the Pardons Board comes in relatively close succession with another controversial high-profile case, namely Zahid Hamidi’s discharge not amounting to an acquittal in the Yayasan Akalbudi case.  

The Malaysian Bar cannot stress enough that a similar discharge must not recur for Najib’s ongoing 1MDB prosecution and two other ongoing cases, failing which it will render the government’s efforts to combat corruption hollow and meaningless, and it will send the message that political power holds the rule of law in shackles.

The announcement by the Pardons Board through the media statement dated 2 February 2024 has thrown light, on a large scale, on the opaqueness of the entire pardons process and is indeed the clarion call needed to push for reforms to the Pardons Board and its processes.

While it is true that justice must be tempered with mercy, it is also true that mercy must not rob justice.

Karen Cheah Yee Lynn is president of the Malaysian Bar

This piece is reproduced from here and has been edited for style only.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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Sarjit Singh
Sarjit Singh
7 Feb 2024 9.10am

Thanks Bar Council. Take it up with the present Agong and the Deputy Agong. It is their Royal duty to safeguard the public…