Thursday, 25 October 2012
Altantuya murder appeal put off again - at last minute
The Court of Appeal has again put off hearing into the appeal brought by two police personnel sentenced to death for the October 2006 murder of Mongolian national Altantuya Shaariibuu.
The hearing slated to be heard in August had been put off as well in July, with the new hearding dates fixed for Oct 31 and Nov 1.
Hazman Ahmad, counsel for Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri, when contacted yesterday said the postponement is indefinite, meaning that no fresh dates were fixed.
Hazman did not reply to Malaysiakini's text message seeking the reason for the postponement.
When the earlier appeal hearing scheduled for Aug 27 was postponed in July, the defence lawyers speculated that this was done because of the Hari Raya Aidilfitri celebration.
Azilah and Lance Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar have been languishing in jail since late October 2006.
They were in April 2009 sentenced to death for the murder of Altantuya after a 159-day trial.
The written judgment was only released in March this year.
Yesterday's sudden postponement of the appeal is seen as strange because only last week Sirul's lawyers Kamarul Hisham Kamaruddin and Hasnal Rezua Merican confirmed that the hearing would go on as scheduled.
Hasnal also told Malaysiakini that the court had warned counsel then that no further postponement would be allowed.
At that time, Malaysiakini also sought a confirmation from a senior deputy public prosecutor involved in the case and he replied in the affirmative, saying that the Attorney-General's Chambers was busy preparing for it.
The tell-all session that wasn't
The postponement has added further intrigue into the murder case, which was recently compounded with an invitation posted on the website of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT), announcing a press conference in Bangkok on Oct 22.
The mysterious invitation, titled 'New revelations in the Altantuya murder', said former inspector-general of police Musa Hassan would give the press conference.
Contacted last Saturday, Musa said he was not aware of the event. On Monday, the morning of the supposed press conference, the FCCT issued notice informing journalists that the event was cancelled. No explanation was given.
The timing of the FCCT invite may have been intentionally designed close to the Oct 31 appeal hearing date, for the Altantuya murder is a politically explosive and increasingly murky case.
At the time of her death, Azilah and Sirul alternated as bodyguards to then prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and to Najib Abdul Razak, then deputy prime minister and defence minister, whose confidante Abdul Razak Baginda was charged with abetting in the murder.
Eventually, Abdul Razak was acquitted without his defence being called. However, to many observers, the bigger mystery of the High Court trial was how the presiding judge, justice Mohd Zaki Md Yasin, had excluded the motive for the murder from his judgment.
The issue of human rights
Politics aside, the delays in the legal processes are also seen as depriving Azilah and Sirul of their human rights, since prolonged incarceration of death row prisoners is cruel and degrading, a commissioner with the Human Rights Commission (Suhakam), said Khaw Lake Tee.
"It is a violation of Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," said Khaw (right), who teaches law at Universiti Malaya.
Article 5 of the UDHR states: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."
However, lawyer Andrew Khoo, who is known for his work in human rights, said Malaysian law does not provide a fixed time period to hear appeals in cases where the death sentence has been passed.
He said that in some instances, the appeal process may take many years, causing death row inmates to languish in jail.
"Even after the Federal Court rejects the appeal, the accused have a final chance for clemency before the appeals boards of the various states," said Khoo.
Court can fast-track, if it wants to
Nevertheless, the court can expedite a hearing if it wants to, as seen in the recent case of the Selangor government versus Syarikat Bekalan Air Selangor Bhd before the Federal Court on Wednesday, in a dispute involving water tariff calculation.
The Court of Appeal on Oct 8 ruled in favour of the Selangor government in the dispute, prompting Syabas to file its notice for leave to appeal the decision in the Federal Court on Oct 15.
Syabas was granted a hearing date for the leave application within a day and the court papers were served on the Selangor government on Oct 17, even before the Court of Appeal handed out its written judgment.
Senior lawyers consulted by Malaysiakini said they have never seen such swift action from the court to decide on hearing dates because such processes will normally take weeks, if not months, and never in a day.
Selangor Menteri Besar Abdul Khalid Ibrahim in his affidavit dated Oct 22 complained over this fact, and also pointed out that the written judgment of the Court of Appeal had yet to come out.
Further, Khalid argued, his lawyers had just 24 hours to prepare their submissions.
Despite these arguments, the Federal Court on Wednesday went ahead and granted Syabas the leave it sought.
Like the Altantuya murder trial, the Selangor Pakatan government's legal battles against Syabas have political considerations, albeit to a lesser degree.
However, the question remains as to whether the appeal against conviction by Azilah and Sirul will be heard before the next general election.