By Yow Hong Chieh and Boo Su-Lyn
KUALA LUMPUR, April 2 — Lawyers today weighed in on Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s latest blog post, in which he questioned the court’s power to issue contempt citations.
The former prime minister was referring to the contempt charges levelled against his ex-political secretary, Matthias Chang.
Chang was charged with “contempt in the face of court” on March 25, after he refused to apologise for arguing with the judge and a lawyer during his defamation suit against American Express (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd.
He was sentenced to a month in jail after refusing to pay the RM20,000 fine.
Murelidaran Navaratnam, Penang Bar chairman, said it was well within the rights of the judge to issue such citations.
“The power to charge someone with contempt (of court) has been there since time immemorial,” he said, citing the British roots of Malaysia’s legal system.
“The judge has the power to charge any person with contempt. Whether or not the judge should or should not do that is another question.”
Lim Chee Wee, vice-president of the Malaysian Bar, explained that Article 126 of the Federal Constitution vested power in the court to punish acts of contempt.
Nevertheless, Lim assured that the law also provided safeguards for people to defend themselves against contempt citations, including the right to appeal a conviction.
He questioned why Chang did not seek an appeal, but cautioned against speculation as there were conflicting accounts of what transpired that day.
In a similar vein, lawyer Malik Imtiaz Sarwar said it was premature for anyone to claim that there was a miscarriage of justice in this case.
“There are many different accounts (of what happened),” he said. “We have not heard the version from the judge yet.”
Malik Imtiaz, who is also president of Hakam, added: “Those who seek to criticise the judge should do so with the appropriate deference and sincerity.”
“(At the same time) the judiciary should not consider itself beyond criticism. Mutual respect between the Bench and the Bar is essential for the system of justice to work.”
Legal practitioner Phillip Koh said judges should exercise restraint when it comes to contempt of court but also stressed that witnesses should behave with “measured proportionality.”
He pointed out that Chang was in court not as a lawyer but as a witness, and that lawyers do not deserve special courtesy when it comes to contempt.
Richard Wee, another lawyer, while declining to comment specifically about Chang’s case, said he found contempt of court “slightly one-sided” because the judge and prosecutor was the same person.
He did, however, take the opportunity to point out the irony of Dr Mahathir’s post.
”From Mahathir’s point, I find it amusing that this is the very person who created this judicial system. He created the system and (now) he is complaining about it.”