Malaysia ex-PM Najib discharges lawyers again as final appeal against graft conviction continues

Najib Razak discharged his defence team as a hearing against his corruption conviction and jail sentence entered its second day. PHOTO: REUTERS

PUTRAJAYA - Malaysia’s former premier Najib Razak on Friday (Aug 19) discharged part of his defence team in the midst of a hearing for his final appeal against a graft conviction - the second time he has discharged counsel in just two months. 

Najib, who is facing 12 years in jail should he fail to overturn his conviction, discharged Zaid Ibrahim Suflan TH Liew & Partners (Zist) on Friday, less than a month after hiring the firm which is led by former de facto law minister Zaid Ibrahim. 

The matter was conveyed to Malaysia’s highest court - the Federal Court - on Friday by Najib’s lead counsel, Mr Hisyam Teh Poh Teik, who runs a separate law firm. 

Mr Hisyam himself attempted to discharge himself as Najib’s lawyer on Thursday, only for his discharge application to be rejected by the court, which used its discretion to prevent Najib from being left unrepresented. 

Friday was the second day of Najib’s final appeal hearing, which is scheduled to run until Aug 26. 

The prosecution concluded its submissions on Friday, meaning Najib’s defence lawyers will have the opportunity to present counter arguments on Tuesday (Aug 23) when the court resumes. 

If they choose not to make any oral submissions on Tuesday, the hearing could conclude, leaving it to the five-member Federal Court bench led by Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat to deliver a decision.

Mr Hisyam reiterated to the court on Friday that he would not be making any submissions next Tuesday, after making another attempt to adjourn the court until next Thursday, citing another ongoing trial at the High Court, where he is representing Umno chief Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, an ally of Najib. 

Justice Tengku Maimun, who had twice rejected attempts to adjourn the court this week, said that the judges have already ruled to push ahead with the hearing, and said that the panel “will deal with matter” of the defence team’s refusal to make submission on Tuesday when court reconvenes.

Lead prosecutor V. Sithambaram told the court that according to precedent, the court can opt to outright dismiss the appeal if Najib’s defence lawyers, as the appellants, do not make any submissions. 

Najib, who has tried - and failed - multiple times to postpone the final hearing, said on Thursday that he has effectively been left “without a defence counsel” due to his defence team’s failure to secure an adjournment to prepare for the appeal. 

Mr Hisyam was initially hired to lead Najib’s defence team after Zist took over the brief, and was supposed to lead a team of lawyers from both firms. Only three lawyers were present from Najib’s defence team on Friday, all of them from Mr Hisyam’s firm. 

Najib’s defence lawyers had largely relied on postponing the hearing dates in order to buy more time to prepare fresh arguments for the final appeal, citing lack of preparation after being hired less than a month ago. 

Najib, citing concerns over losing the case at both the High Court and Court of Appeal, discharged his long-time lawyer Shafee Abdullah last month before hiring Mr Zaid to lead his defence.

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On Thursday, Najib admitted that the change in counsel was a “desperate” move on his part due to his current predicament. 

His defence lawyers had already opted not to exercise their right to make opening oral arguments in court on Thursday, allowing the prosecution to make their case during the appeal hearing. 

The team has applied - and failed - to seek adjournment three times; it has also failed twice to introduce new evidence. 

Mr Hisyam on Thursday also said he would not make fresh written submissions unless granted adjournment, only to be told off by a judge. 

If Najib’s lawyers opt not to issue any counter arguments to the prosecution’s case, the only arguments that Najib could rely on would be the written submissions made by his ex-lawyer, Mr Shafee, when the appeal notice was filed at the end of last year.

The Malaysian Bar on Friday said that it was “aghast” at the developments at the Federal Court and the conduct of Najib’s defence team.

In a statement, Malaysian Bar president Karen Cheah Yee Lynn said that the Legal Profession Rules outlines that lawyers should not take up a case unless they are reasonably certain of being able to appear and represent their clients on dates fixed by the court.

“The various attempts to undermine the justice system through such unscrupulous strategies are a perversion of our justice system and an abuse of the court process,” Madam Cheah said.

“The advocates and solicitors involved in such acts have conducted themselves unprofessionally and would have to face disciplinary action.”

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