PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Malaysia's Attorney-General Tommy Thomas has defended the appointment of a consultant to his former law firm to head the team of lawyers representing 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and the government in the claim over superyacht Equanimity.
Mr Thomas was responding to an allegation that there was a conflict of interest when the Attorney-General's Chambers hired Ms Sitpah Selvaratnam in its work, as she had been a consultant in Mr Thomas' former firm over the past eight years.
Umno Youth's young lawyers' secretariat chairman Nik Saiful Adli Burhan had asked about the conflict of interest on Wednesday (Aug 8).
"How can the government appoint a law firm that is owned by someone who holds an important position in the country?" he had asked in a statement.
Mr Thomas in his statement on Thursday said Ms Sitpah is a prominent expert in maritime law. She is the long-time chairman of the Bar Council's Shipping and Admiralty Law Committee and the founding president of the International Malaysian Society of Maritime Law.
Additionally, she won't be paid any fees for doing the work linked to the yacht.
"Her services are rendered to us without any charge to the taxpayer. It must be kept in mind that these legal proceedings are brought for the benefit of Malaysia."
"Accordingly, we are entitled to Malaysia's best shipping lawyers. There is no question of conflict of interest because we are all on the same side," he said in a statement on Thursday.
The A-G said the decision to appoint Ms Sitpah was his alone, because he had trust and confidence in her ability and integrity.
He said that Ms Sitpah is the acknowledged leader of the Admiralty Bar when it comes to litigation matters. She had been "involved in numerous arrests of ships and vessels, and also opposing arrests in more than 25 years of specialised practice".
The RM1 billion vessel (S$340 million) was allegedly bought by businessman Low Taek Jho or Jho Low using funds stolen from state fund 1MDB.
1MDB is now under new management after the Pakatan Harapan alliance won federal power in May.
A-G Thomas said the most effective basis of invoking the court's jurisdiction over the superyacht is Admiralty law or the law of shipping.
"She (Ms Sitpah) is therefore the obvious choice to advise Chambers and myself on the matter.
"As the transactions were intricate and layered corporate deals carried out by Jho Low and advisers to hide the true source of funds used to purchase the yacht, drafting the legal papers required skill and expertise in shipping law and corporate law," he said.
Equanimity is currently docked at the Boustead Cruise Centre in Port Klang, after arriving on Tuesday.
A sheriff of the Admiralty court on that day served the warrant of arrest on the vessel by pasting it on the mast.
The vessel was seized in Bali in February at the request of the US authorities as part of a multi-billion-dollar corruption investigation launched by the US Department of Justice related to 1MDB.
However, a Jakarta court in April ruled in favour of the owners after they applied for a court motion to declare the seizure illegal.
In July, Indonesian police seized the yacht again following a formal request for legal assistance from the United States.
In his statement on Thursday, A-G Thomas said serving the warrant of arrest with the sheriff on the yacht required experience and expertise by lawyers who have actually conducted admiralty arrests.
The claimants in the court proceedings are 1MDB, two of its subsidiaries and the Malaysian government.
Besides Ms Sitpah, lawyers Jeremy Joseph and Ong Chee Kwan were also appointed to represent the claimants. They will be paid normal commercial rates, the Attorney General said.
He added that both Ms Sitpah and Mr Joseph had been approached by foreign parties to act for them in this matter, but they had declined.
Said Mr Thomas: "The real test of Ms Selvaratnam's (Sitpah) experience and expertise would come into play, if and when, Jho Low or any other party applies to set aside the warrant of arrest.
"The arguments would then be vigorously put forward by all sides when the court hears the matter on its merits, and it is critical that Malaysia has the best barristers.
"Litigation is dynamic; unpredictable events occur in court, and Malaysia's case must be in safe hands."