Key court judgments that made headlines in 2021

Tan Sri Mohd Isa Abdul Samad's conviction was one of the more prominent judgement in court cases of the year. — Picture by Hari Anggara
Tan Sri Mohd Isa Abdul Samad's conviction was one of the more prominent judgement in court cases of the year. — Picture by Hari Anggara

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KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 31 — Like so many other sectors this year, the pandemic impacted Malaysia’s justice system, disrupting hearings in both civil and criminal matters.

However, thanks to the judiciary’s embrace of a hybrid system that saw judges sit in courtrooms while lawyers and their clients made their cases remotely online, hearings were able to proceed to judgment in 2021.

Among them were several high profile criminal prosecutions and constitutional matters such as citizenship issues and the Undi18 vote that led to the government finally gazetting the move to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 – which means youths in that age group can take part in the 15th general election, widely anticipated to be held in 2022.

Here are 10 civil and criminal cases that caught the public eye where judgments were delivered in 2021, in chronological order:

1. Former Felda chairman Tan Sri Mohd Isa Abdul Samad’s corruption conviction

Mohd Isa was found guilty of nine corruption charges involving RM3 million by the High Court on February 3.

He had claimed trial to receiving the gratification from one Ikhwan Zaidel, a board member of Gegasan Abadi Properties Sdn Bhd (GAPSB), through his former special political officer Muhammad Zahid Md Arip.

The gratification was for helping to approve the purchase of the Merdeka Palace Hotel & Suites (MPHS) in Kuching, Sarawak, by Felda Investment Corporation Sdn Bhd (FICSB) from GAPSB for RM160 million.

Outcome: Mohd Isa was sentenced to six years in jail and fined RM15.45 million.

2. Malaysiakini fined for contempt of court

For facilitating five readers’ remarks against the judiciary on the news portal’s website, Malaysiakini’s operator Mkini Dot Com Sdn Bhd was found guilty of contempt on February 19 and sentenced to a fine of RM500,000.

The decision was handed down by the Federal Court in a 6-1 decision.

In explaining the “not too lenient” fine, the judges said their decision was based on “public interest” and to discourage others from committing a similar offence.

The offensive comments that five Malaysiakini readers had made against the judiciary had included criticism against the courts over the acquittal of former Sabah chief minister Tan Sri Musa Aman of 46 corruption and money-laundering charges.

Outcome: RM500,000 fine for contempt of court. However, Malaysiakini editor-in-chief Steven Gan was found not in contempt.

3. Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor’s RM2m graft case conviction acquittal

The Putrajaya MP was freed on July 16 from one count of receiving for himself a RM2 million bribe in his capacity as former Federal Territories minister.

He was previously sentenced to 12 months’ jail and a RM2 million fine by the High Court.

The Court of Appeal in a 2-1 majority decision held that the RM2 million cheque that Tengku Adnan received from businessman Tan Sri Chai Kin Kong was a political donation to Umno.

Outcome: Tengku Adnan’s conviction and sentence of 12-month imprisonment and RM2 million fine quashed. Prosecutors later withdrew its appeal against his acquittal.

4. Implementation of Undi18

Considered one of the most significant decisions handed down by the judiciary in relation to a constitutional amendment, the High Court in Sarawak ruled on September 3 that the federal government and Election Commission (EC) must take steps to implement Undi18 by the end of 2021.

The court had ruled that the EC and federal government had acted “illegally” and “irrationally” when they decided to delay the Undi18 implementation – enabling Malaysians aged 18 onwards to vote in the next elections instead of waiting until they turn 21 – from the promised date of July 2021 to September 2022.

The proposed amendments had been approved at the second meeting of the second session of the 14th Parliament in July 2019.

The federal government later said that it will not be appealing the High Court’s decision.

Outcome: The EC and government’s decision to delay the implementation of Undi18 quashed. The government later gazetted the Bill on November 25 which took effect on December 15.

Despite the gazette, 18-year-old Sarawakians were unable to cast their votes in the state election on December 18.

Full implementation has been fixed for January 3, with the government explaining the gazettement was made so as to meet the deadline of December 31 as ordered by the High Court.

5. Malaysian mothers win right to apply for citizenship for their overseas-born children

On September 9, the High Court made a historic decision that recognised Malaysian women have an equal right to Malaysian men under the Federal Constitution to pass on citizenship automatically to their children born overseas.

The landmark judgment held that Malaysia’s citizenship laws in the Federal Constitution should not be interpreted in a way that discriminates against Malaysian women.

Later on December 22, the Court of Appeal unanimously dismissed the Malaysian government’s application to stay or temporarily suspend issuance of citizenship – even before the appeal proper is heard in March 2022.

Outcome: Government must issue citizenship-related documents upon application to children born overseas to Malaysian mothers that were married to foreigners pending an appeal fixed for 2022.

6. Pontian MP Datuk Seri Ahmad Maslan’s acquittal of money laundering charges

The Umno secretary-general was previously charged with failing to declare RM2 million which he had received from Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak to the Inland Revenue Board (IRB) and giving false statements to the Malaysian Anti -Corruption Commission (MACC).

The prosecution said it was withdrawing the two charges after Ahmad consented to and agreed to pay a compound of RM1.1 million, with the Umno leader later discharged by the High Court on September 29.

According to Ahmad’s law firm, the process of resolving the case included several representations sent to the Attorney-General’s Chambers over a year’s period.

The MACC later stated that the RM1.1 million compound issued against Ahmad was a punitive act and a form of asset recovery under the country's anti-money laundering law.

Outcome: Ahmad acquitted of his charges. He will not be prosecuted again for the same offence.

7. The Marine cadet officer Zulfarhan Osman Zulkarnain murder trial

Six former National Defence University of Malaysia students that caused the death of Zulfarhan in 2017 were convicted by the High Court but escaped the gallows following a protracted trial which lasted some three years.

All six were found guilty of culpable homicide not amounting to murder in the November 2 decision.

The court had then said while the prosecution successfully proved that Zulfarhan was harmed by the six accused, it failed to prove their intention for murder.

Another 12, charged with voluntarily causing hurt to Zulfarhan to extort a confession from him over a laptop theft, were also found guilty by the court.

Outcome: All six were sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment from the date of their arrest. The other 12 accused were sentenced to three years’ imprisonment each.

8. Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s RM42 million SRC International conviction appeal

Possibly the most significant and highly anticipated verdict made this year was delivered via video-conferencing on December 8.

The Court of Appeal had in a unanimous decision affirmed Najib’s conviction and sentencing involving the misappropriation of RM42 million belonging to SRC International.

In their 317-page full judgment, the court ruled that Najib's conduct in relation to the SRC case could not be said to have served national interests as it had turned out to be a national embarrassment.

Najib was appealing the High Court’s decision from July 28, 2020, which found him guilty of all seven charges relating to SRC’s RM42 million.

However, he was granted a stay of execution despite his appeal failure. Najib has since filed an appeal at the Federal Court seeking to overturn the Court of Appeal’s unanimous ruling.

Outcome: Najib’s conviction and his 12-year jail sentence and RM210 million fine remain even though he is free to walk about pending the apex court’s hearing and disposal of his appeal.

9. Muda’s long journey for official recognition

The Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (Muda) won its lawsuit in the High Court, securing an order for the Home Ministry to register it as a political party within two weeks as ordered by the court on December 14.

The court victory was a hard-fought win for Muda, as this is the third lawsuit it had to file in order to be registered as a political party that lasted almost a year long.

The government did not appeal the High Court’s decision.

Outcome: Court ruled in Muda’s favour for it to be registered as a political party. The party was later officially registered on December 23.

10. Constitutionality of vernacular schools

Probably the final landmark decision before the year 2021 wrapped up, the High Court ruled that Malaysia’s vernacular schools were consistent with the Federal Constitution when it rejected a lawsuit seeking for the government to abolish education using Mandarin and Tamil.

Gabungan Pelajar Melayu Semenanjung, the Islam Education Development Council, and the Confederation of Malaysian Writers Association initiated the lawsuit to push the government to prohibit vernacular schools.

Outcome: High Court affirms constitutionality of vernacular school, lawsuit seeking to declare said institutions unconstitutional dismissed.

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