KUALA LUMPUR - The huge controversy over a court settlement involving the stepson of former premier Najib Razak has spread to the Malaysian Bar, with five former presidents of the independent lawyers' group on Tuesday (May 19) making a scathing attack on the sitting chief over his statement regarding the case.
Malaysian Bar president Salim Bashir on Monday (May 18) issued a statement over the court's decision to drop criminal charges against Mr Riza Aziz, Najib's stepson, who was accused of laundering US$248 million (S$353 million) in the 1MDB scandal.
Mr Riza's settlement has sparked widespread criticism as he would be discharged if he returns to the government US$108 million, less than half of what was allegedly taken.
The Sessions Court's decision came just two months after the Pakatan Harapan government collapsed and was replaced by Perikatan Nasional, the new ruling alliance that includes Umno, the party Najib used to helm.
Commenting on the case on Monday, former premier Mahathir Mohamad said: "So anyone who wants to steal, just give back half to the government, and you can enjoy the rest.
"I have no idea if this is legal but it has never happened before in Malaysia."
Mr Salim's statement, "Legal Issues on the Granting of a Discharge Not Amounting to Acquittal of Riza Aziz", discussed technical legal issues over the case but did not say whether the Sessions Court's was correct, or not, in arriving at the controversial decision.
Mr Salim's seven-paragraph statement concluded by saying: "It can be said that the case concerning Riza Aziz is still very much in its early stages of settlement as he is still expected to fulfil all the agreed terms and conditions. In the event of his failure to do so, he may be re-charged and prosecuted for the same offences. "
Lawyers J. Armadas, Ng Kong Peng and five former Malaysian Bar presidents - Kuthubul Zaman Bukhari, Yeo Yang Poh, Ambiga Sreenevasan, Ragunath Kesavan and Lim Chee Wee - in their joint statement said Mr Salim did not address the core of the controversial deal with Riza, and accused him of merely making general comments about court procedures.
The joint statement, as quoted in full by Malaysiakini news site, said: "That (Salim) statement, it pains us to say, is superficial and ill-conceived...
"What Malaysians want to know, and look hopefully to the Bar for guidance, is this - based on the information available, has that discretion, firstly, been properly, judiciously and fairly exercised, in the case of Riza Aziz; and, secondly, has it been seen to have been so exercised?"
The joint statement added: "If the Bar president feels that the available information is not yet adequate to enable him to form a reasoned opinion; then he should either have restrained himself from speaking, or else explained what additional information may be required before the Bar could come to a reasoned assessment.
"That statement has done none of the above.
"That statement is hollow, when it fails to address the most pressing questions bothering the Malaysian public."
It added: "We call upon all members of the Bar to lend their voice of strength in this matter of public importance; and to assure the Malaysian public that the Malaysian Bar has not lost its way."