Malaysia's deputy public prosecutor (DPP) has defended his decision to drop the corruption case against Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng, amid calls for more transparency and scrutiny of whether there was political interference in the process.
DPP Mohamad Hanafiah Zakaria said in a statement yesterday that the charges against Mr Lim were withdrawn after fresh evidence surfaced during the trial.
Without giving details, Datuk Mohamad Hanafiah said that the evidence had emerged during the cross-examination of prosecution witnesses.
"I concluded that as a result of the cross-examination of the prosecution witnesses who have testified so far, the evidence supporting the first charge under Section 23 of the MACC (Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission) Act and under Section 165 of the Penal Code has been substantially weakened. This conclusion was arrived in the light of fresh evidence that has arisen during the cross-examination of prosecution witnesses," he said.
"I would not be fulfilling my duties as deputy public prosecutor to let the case continue, knowing full well that the case against both Lim Guan Eng and (businesswoman) Phang Li Koon would not succeed at the end of the prosecution case," he said.
On Monday, the Penang High Court acquitted Mr Lim of two charges - that he used his former position as chief minister of Penang to approve the conversion of land, and that he gained gratification for himself by buying a bungalow below market value.
The prosecution had asked for a discharge not amounting to an acquittal, but the judge ordered a full acquittal instead.
Fuelling the outcry over Mr Lim's acquittal was anti-graft agency MACC's statement on Monday that it was shocked by the decision to drop the case, which it said was made by the Attorney-General's (A-G) office, and not the MACC.
Sources told The Straits Times that the decision does not sit well with the commission as its investigators believe there is evidence of Mr Lim abusing his position.
"What is upsetting is, the new government reinstated a person of integrity like Datuk Seri Shukri Abdull back in MACC, only to have the charges in a high-profile case like this thrown out.
"If there was insufficient evidence, the A-G would not have initiated prosecution and charged them in the first place. This doesn't only reflect on the judicial system, but also on the MACC," a source said.
Mr Shukri's return to the agency this year was lauded because he was made to leave in 2016 by the former Barisan Nasional administration after probing financial mismanagement at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad.
Another source said: "Shukri was so upset and angry when he found out (about the decision) that he went to the AGC's (Attorney-General's Chambers) office to seek clarification. There, he made it clear that he would not hesitate to 'open a file' on anyone who is a 'puppet' controlled by hidden hands."
Mr Lim's acquittal comes after his lawyers filed representations to the AGC for the case to be dropped after the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government took power in May, arguing that the charges against Mr Lim were politically motivated.
Mr Lim was charged with corruption in 2016, when PH formed the opposition. He is secretary-general of the Democratic Action Party, one of the four member parties of PH.
Ms Phang, who sold the bungalow to Mr Lim, was also acquitted of the corruption charge against her.
Opposition politicians and civil society groups have questioned this "selective non-prosecution", and asked the AGC to give reasons for its decision.
Umno Youth chief Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki described the decision as a "black mark in the history of New Malaysia". "The move to drop Guan Eng's case without a solid explanation and clear justification by the AGC only highlights that justice is not being served," he said.
MP Tian Chua, who is a vice-president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, which is part of PH, yesterday urged the AGC to explain the basis for the acquittal to uphold the promise of transparency given by the PH government.
Some lawyer groups have also called for Attorney-General Tommy Thomas, recently appointed by the PH administration, to resign for not upholding the rule of law.
However, Mr Mohamad Hanafiah said that Mr Thomas had no hand in the decision to withdraw the case, after he recused himself from the matter last month.
He also stressed that the decision to initiate or discontinue any prosecution is a matter within the prerogative and powers of the public prosecutor, and that his decision was arrived at without any influence from any quarters.
How the case unfolded
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
The controversy over the bungalow purchase made by then Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng began after an Umno Member of Parliament alleged in March 2016 that Mr Lim had bought the RM2.8 million (S$931,000) home for much lower than its actual value.
The allegations by Datuk Shabudin Yahaya about the two-storey bungalow in Jalan Pinhorn, which Mr Lim had purchased from businesswoman Phang Li Koon in 2015, set off a chain of events which led to Mr Lim being investigated by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC).
MACC officials arrested Mr Lim and Ms Phang on June 29, 2016. Both were charged at the Penang Sessions Court a day later.
Mr Lim, 58, was charged with abusing his position to approve a re-zoning application by a company called Magnificent Emblem to convert agricultural land in Balik Pulau into a residential zone - a move that would have raised the land's value dramatically.
He was alleged to have committed the offence while chairing a Penang state planning committee meeting on July 18, 2014. According to local media reports, Ms Phang had been a director of Magnificent Emblem at the time.
Mr Lim also faced a second charge of using his position to obtain a plot of land and the Jalan Pinhorn bungalow in July 2015 from Ms Phang for RM2.8 million.
The court documents stated that the actual market value of the bungalow was RM4.27 million.
Mr Lim would have faced up to 20 years in jail if convicted.
Ms Phang was charged with abetting Mr Lim to obtain the bungalow at an undervalued price. She would have faced up to two years in jail if convicted.
Both pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Mr Lim, who was released on bail, was adamant from the start that he was innocent, saying that he would not "submit to such dirty and vicious political plays to destroy my reputation".
The trial, which began on March 26 this year, saw 25 witnesses being called in. It was postponed briefly to allow Mr Lim to campaign in Malaysia's May 9 General Election.
After Mr Lim's Pakatan Harapan alliance was elected to power in May, his lawyers filed representations to the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) for the charges to be dropped, saying they were politically motivated.
The High Court gave the prosecution until Sept 3 to decide whether to proceed with the corruption charges.
On Sept 3, the AGC withdrew all the charges.
Although the prosecution had requested a dismissal not amounting to an acquittal, High Court judge Hadhariah Syed Ismail acquitted both the accused.
She said the charges could not "be hanging over the heads of the accused indefinitely".