CV Prabhakaran: Towering Reformasi lawyer who defended the underdog

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The PSM 6 with their lawyers - (from left) Chon Kai, lawyers Karen Lai and CV Prabhakaran, Jeyakumar Devaraj, Saras, Sugu, Letchu, lawyer Agatha Foo and Babu

Dato’ CV Prabhakharan, the former chairman of the Penang Bar Committee (1996-1999) passed away on 15 June 2018. He was 81. Anil Netto writes this tribute.

A former police inspector, Prabha cut an imposing figure in court as a lawyer, both in height and reputation, especially during the Reformasi years.

The senior lawyer was a great friend of Aliran’s and rendered pro bono advice on many occasions. He used to review several of our articles and press statements that we published, especially those that were critical of the courts and judicial proceedings, to make sure we steered clear of any accusation of contempt of court. And indeed, not once did we land in hot soup despite the many hard-hitting statements we released.

There was a close call though. Once, when the then Aliran president, P Ramakrishnan, issued a press statement criticising aspects of the proceedings of a royal commission of inquiry on the Lingam tape, the commission slammed Aliran saying that we were on the “verge of contempt”. The chairman wanted Rama to apologise.

Aliran sought external legal advice and was told that we had better heed the commission chairman’s wishes.

Rama then contacted Prabha on the eve of the hearing and said he was unwilling to apologise as he felt the statement was fair comment.

“Don’t worry, Rama, I will represent you,” Prabha replied without hesitation. “I will drive down to KL tomorrow morning.” True enough, he drove all the way from Butterworth to Kuala Lumpur to defend Rama at the proceedings.

When the chairman of the royal commission asked whether Rama was prepared to apologise, Prabha confidently responded that his client maintained it was fair comment and no apology would be made. Thankfully, nothing came of it in the end, perhaps due to Prabha’s firm intervention and the respect he commanded.

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Prabha was always passionate about seeking justice and defending those speaking out against injustice. This was one reason he readily supported Aliran’s cause even at short notice. “Must support people like Ramakrishnan and Aliran,” he would mutter to me on more than one occasion.

Prabha also played a key role as one of the lead lawyers of Anwar Ibrahim, Azmin Ali and other opposition figures, sometimes working in a team with such stalwarts as Karpal Singh.

“We toiled through the early Reformasi days,” recalled Anwar on social media when he heard of Prabha’s passing. “(He was a) prominent lawyer, part of the legal eagles that defended me in 2008. I will remember him as a towering figure who defended the marginalised, and an activist who stood for justice.”

Prabha and Azmin Ali

Azmin too has a lot to thank Prabha for, as the veteran lawyer got him off the hook on a number of occasions. When Azmin was charged with perjury for his testimony in the Anwar trial of 1999, it was Prabha who was in his corner as defence lawyer.

Azmin was finally cleared of the charge in 2009 after almost a decade, when the Court of Appeal upheld a lower court’s decision to acquit him. He would go on to become menteri besar of Selangor and now cabinet minister.

In a celebrated though bizarre case in 2011, six PSM activists were detained without trial under emergency era laws on charges of possessing subversive printed material.

The six, including the then Sungai Siput MP Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, also an Aliran member, were released after 28 days of detention (see photo at the top) and then charged in court. The quiet town of Butterworth was made to look like it was under siege as a helicopter clattered just above the court-house when the activists were brought to court.

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Prabha, the defender of the underdog, led a seven-person legal defence team (including Aliran’s Agatha Foo) in Butterworth. Although the six activists, along with 24 other PSM members, faced serious charges carrying lengthy jail terms, not a single one of them was sentenced to jail.

Much of this sort of legal work undertaken by Prabha was done on a pro bono basis. Thanks to his heart of gold, despite being such a prominent senior lawyer, he was by no means wealthy.

Recalls his son Rajiv: “Money was not everything to him. He was very generous, always helping people, anyone in need, including his chambering students, many of whom were mature students, who had changed careers. If his clients could not afford the legal fees, he would help them anyway.”

It wasn’t a surprise that Prabha was one of the early proponents of the Malaysian Bar’s benevolent fund (later known as LawCare), serving as the chairperson of the Bar Council’s benevolent fund committee (1996-1998).

Probably Prabha’s greatest satisfaction came when the now ailing lawyer lived to see the dawn of the new Malaysia on 9 May after a prolonged people power struggle for change – a struggle in which he played no small role through his legal battles in court.

The icing on the cake came five days later when his former client, Anwar, was released with a full pardon.

As if that was not enough, Prabha, his health deteriorating, was delighted to learn that his friend Tommy Thomas was appointed as attorney general. Of Tommy, Prabha said, “He is my personal friend and loved Muthiamma’s (Prabha’s mother’s) food.” Both shared much in common, especially their passion for justice and pro bono work in support of groups championing the cause of justice.

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Just two days before Prabha passed away, Chief Justice Raus Sharif and Court of Appeal president Zulkefli Ahmad Makinudin tendered their resignations effective 31 July 2018.

His lifetime of legal battles finally vindicated, Prabha, who had been keeping abreast with national developments to the end, could now depart in peace, immensely satisfied that he had played a part in the cause of justice. He may not have left behind tons of money but he leaves behind a legacy of much love and devotion with wife Rohini, sons Roy, Rajiv and Padman, their spouses and his five grandchildren whom he doted on – plus all those who knew him and the many, many others whom he had quietly helped. A priceless legacy.

Funeral rites begin on Sunday, 24 June 2018 at 9.45am at 11, Jalan Molek, Bagan Ajam, Butterworth, 13000 Penang. The cortege will leave at 10.30am to the Berapit Crematorium in Bukit Mertajam, Penang.

Farewell, passionate defender of Justice.

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J. D. Lovrenciear
24 Jun 2018 9.38pm

Thank you Anil and Aliran for dutifully acknowledging the legal contributions, the dedication and the passion to serve justice without money. Indeed souls like our late Dato’ C V Prabhakaran will be eternally remembered on this land. And Aliran has lived up to the every letter of ‘gratitude’.

Teo Chuen Tick
24 Jun 2018 3.08pm

May Prabha be well and happy always!!