The bizarre news that a magistrate in Terengganu has issued a prison sentence in absentia (starting from today) against the author of this site has taken everyone by surprise.
There was no notification of the hearing, no summons and no information passed to the lawyer for the defendant. There was therefore no opportunity to even place a defence.
This is, of course, in keeping with the original surprise hearing in September 2021 when the same magistrates court issued a warrant for her arrest owing to her non-appearance in Terengganu (during Covid when she was living in the UK) having failed to notify her of the summons let alone of any charges, which to this day have never been pressed.
In response to this strange development Sarawak Report’s lawyer, Guok Ngek Seong, has stated that the action of the magistrate is in contravention of the criminal procedure code in failing to notify him or his client of the hearing and indeed failing to even press initial charges.
Moreover, under the law, a magistrate cannot impose a sentence of imprisonment in the absence of the accused.
Guok told SR that he will therefore call “for the illegal and irregular decision of the court to be set aside”.
Meanwhile, SR’s lawyers will also be seeking clarification as to whether once again authorities in Malaysia will be attempting to ask INTERPOL to arrest the journalist on the basis of tenuous and politically motivated charges, prompted by an apparent desire to avenge the revelations about high crimes and kleptocracy in Malaysia.
This will be the third time Sarawak Report will have had to notify INTERPOL to ignore such attempts to harass the author.
The original police complaint by the Sultanah issued under Malaysia’s backward criminal libel laws against a sentence in her book The Sarawak Report in 2018, had contained material errors including an incorrect rendering of the passage complained of.
The defendant gave a full statement to the police, pointed out the inaccuracies and was notified there would be no further action. It was only three years later that the new UMNO led government applied for a Red Notice to have her arrested on the basis of the Terengganu warrant apparently issued in response to charges she was never properly informed about.
Indeed, the police took the trouble to message the journalist only to check that she was outside the country in advance of pressing charges, but they did not inform her when formal charges were issued, what these charges were nor when the matter was brought before the court
These events took place just one month after the so-called backdoor government fell into the hands of UMNO still heavily influenced by its former leader, the now jailed ex-prime minister, Najib Razak.
After all, it was this site which had first revealed his global scale kleptocracy over 1MDB and which had published expose after expose leading to his eventual loss of office and criminal indictment.
Najib cheerleaders, such as the Moss side fugitive Peter Kamarudding, had long threatened ‘revenge’ on Sarawak Report (calling himself “a very dangerous enemy”) and his brother is a key advisor in Terengganu. Their political ally, Hadi Awang, who dropped a libel action against SR which had been advised and promoted by the Kamarudding brothers, was a former Terengganu Menteri Besar.
Meanwhile, libel lawyers in the UK are in agreement there was no defamation uttered in the passage complained of in the first place (as determined at the original high court trial in Kuala Lumpur). As one top UK defamation lawyer observed today:
“It is absolutely disgraceful that such an anodyne paragraph in a book of such public interest could lead to a jail sentence”
The Sultanah, whose civil lawyers produced misleading translations of the passage which has never been published in Malay, has persisted in taking the matter to Appeal where the court opined that to include her name in the same context as Jho Low was of itself defamatory because he later became known to have committed crimes.
The ruling embarrasses other members of the royal family who did indeed introduce Jho Low to the Terengganu Investment Authority at the time, by suggesting that such actions were improper (which Sarawak Report did not as the original judge had noted).
Yesterday, lawyers for Sarawak Report submitted their appeal to the Federal Court to hear their challenge to this reversal.
It adds to a sad week for Malaysia where such naked intimidation of journalism and free political speech has been rife – all seemingly on behalf of Najib Razak and those tied up politically with him.
Increasingly, the attempt is made to involve royal figures on the crude argument that alleged or perceived ‘disrespect’ of a royal figure is ‘seditious’ or ‘defamatory’ in order to bolster naked political attacks against those who disagree or have exposed corruption within UMNO.
Those who questioned the lessening of Najib’s sentence this very week by a pardons board headed by the former king have been threatened by politicians and even the IGP for alleged ‘sedition’ and ‘disrespect for the King’s wisdom’.
Ironically, with many calculating that Najib may very well gain parole and then see his further charges dropped (thanks to UMNO’s influence and campaign) it could be that the editor of Sarawak Report could be subjected to a longer time in jail for exposing his wrong doing, should her enemies in Malaysia succeed in capturing her to do so.
There would be no luxury wing doubtless set aside for her, given she has stolen no public money to afford it.
The global optics of such developments do no favours for Malaysia nor its newly elected reforming government entrusted with putting the bad things right.