At 1MDB trial, Covid-19 precautions mean limited seats for prosecution, Najib’s lawyers

Datuk Seri Najib Razak arrives at the Kuala Lumpur High Court May 20, 2020. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Datuk Seri Najib Razak arrives at the Kuala Lumpur High Court May 20, 2020. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

KUALA LUMPUR, May 20 — The High Court judge presiding over Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) trial today cited Covid-19 precautions when explaining restrictions that have limited the number of lawyers for both the prosecution and defence that can be present in the courtroom. 

Today marks the second day the 1MDB trial is heard since a movement control order (MCO) was first imposed in March and after the courts reopened on May 13.

Like yesterday, social distancing rules have been strictly applied in the courtroom where Najib’s 1MDB trial is being heard, with only three lawyers for the prosecution and three lawyers for Najib’s defence team allowed to sit in front. 

This is in contrast to pre-Covid-19 hearings, where Najib and the prosecution each had more than 10 lawyers present in the front, with the lawyers playing various roles such as making references to and handling stacks of documents from boxes of documents, taking notes of court proceedings and even printing documents on demand at times.

And just like yesterday, several of Najib’s lawyers were seen seated in the front row of the public gallery where they continue to observe proceedings and take notes.

High Court judge Collin Lawrence Sequerah today had to deal with requests from both sides, especially Najib’s lead defence lawyer Tan Sri Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, regarding arrangements to have more lawyers present in the front part of the courtroom. Similar requests were made yesterday.

Sequerah, however, again reiterated the request for lawyers from both the prosecution and the defence to work within the restrictions in line with standard operating procedures for health reasons.

“I’m not at liberty to grant, I anticipate this will not be the end of applications before me prior to the start of the actual trial. I have to follow the SOPs, parties are at liberty to write to the Chief Judge of Malaya for further allowance,” the judge said.

Shafee said he understood that the judge had to perform judicial functions, but said he also had to perform his duties as a lawyer.

Sequerah highlighted however that he was not insisting on following SOPs because he has the power to do so or because he was akin to “laying down the law” with all having no choice but to comply, but said that it was due to concerns about public health.

“We have to balance, we understand it’s a high-profile trial, but what price do you place on human rights? It’s also a risk, people’s health is also paramount.

“I’m concerned, I’m adhering to SOPs because I think health and safety to human life is paramount, so that’s the reason why I’m following the SOPs, not for anything else,” the judge said.

Shafee, however, suggested that a solution be reached to achieve both a fair process of trial and to achieve security of human life, saying that he was unable to fully function as he would need to consult other lawyers on his team, noting that his lawyers had to pass notes to him yesterday.

Sequerah then said that Shafee could confer with his assistants and that it could still be done even if it may take a bit longer than usual, and that passing of notes would also not be an issue.

Shafee then went on to raise the issue of his communication with the court registrar where it was said this morning that there will be attempts to keep five entry passes for lawyers to sit in the public gallery in the courtroom, but complained that his chambering students were unable to get such passes today. 

(Entry to the public portion of the courtroom where Najib’s 1MDB trial is heard is tightly controlled, with only five passes for the public given out daily on a first come first serve basis, while the media also has limited passes allocated daily due to limited public seats in line with social distancing requirements. About four to five lawyers on Shafee’s team managed to find seating in the 20-seat public gallery today, while one deputy public prosecutor from the prosecution’s side was also seated there. The public gallery would have been able to accommodate more people on pre-Covid-19 days, but social distancing meant only 20 could be accommodated today. Live video feed facilities is also prepared within the court complex for other reporters to cover the case, but seating for this has also since been limited due to social distancing rules. )

Shafee’s complaint about passes prompted Sequerah to remark: “Better we adjourn to Pasar Borong Selayang, and let everybody sit all over the place for the hearing without restrictions, how many do you want to appear in court?”

Shafee however requested to at least get passes for his lawyers, with the judge then saying he would see what he could do.

“My concern is that if we do not adhere to SOP, there’s no point, might as well let everybody come in, do what they like,” the High Court judge said.

“I’m not trying to be difficult for the sake of being difficult, we have to work within the restrictions,” the judge added after Shafee suggested that he may even have to discharge himself from representing Najib as a lawyer due to his inability to function fully under the Covid-19 constraints.

Today is the 36th day of Najib’s trial involving more than RM2 billion of 1MDB funds, with ninth prosecution witness and former 1MDB CEO Datuk Shahrol Azral Ibrahim Halmi set to be cross-examined by Shafee again today.

High Court judge Sequerah allowed Shahrol’s request for the hearing of the trial to start this morning and proceed without break — except for short intermittent ones — so that proceedings may conclude earlier at 2pm, since this is the fasting month for Muslims.

Shafee subsequently asked for the trial to stop earlier at 12.30pm today, in order for the defence to have a letter — incorporating the prosecution’s views — submitted to the Chief Judge Tan Sri Azahar Mohamed, and also for both the defence and the prosecution to seek a meeting with the Chief Judge this afternoon to see if measures could be taken to ease the situation of the 1MDB trial’s hearing.

High Court judge Sequerah granted the request, with the trial then continuing on with Shafee’s cross-examination of Shahrol.

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