(MENAFN- Asia Times)
SINGAPORE – Tommy Thomas, the lawyer who set in motion the landmark prosecution and ultimate imprisonment of an ex-prime minister for massive corruption, could be regarded as Malaysia's most consequential attorney-general.
But a new government probe into a book he published about his time as the nation's top prosecutor is widely seen as a setback for good governance and the fight against graft.
Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob ordered an investigation into possible misconduct by Thomas, who served as attorney-general between 2018 and 2020, on September 30, instructing enforcement agencies to further probe various allegations made in his memoir, My Story: Justice In The Wilderness, which sparked a right-wing backlash after its publication last January.
More than 100 police reports were reportedly lodged after the book's publication. The 500-plus-page memoir shed light on Thomas' decisions that led to the charges leveled against ex-premier Najib Razak for his role in the multi-billion-dollar 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, among other high-profile cases.
The former private lawyer-turned-government top counsel and public prosecutor was questioned by police about the book, but the Attorney-General's Chambers did not press charges, nor was the memoir banned. It has since become a national best-seller.
But that didn't stop Ismail from forming a special task force last December to investigate the book and its various revelations and allegations. The nine-month task force probe's findings were presented to the cabinet last month but have not yet been made public.
Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has former Attorney-General Thomas in his sights. Image: Facebook
Investigators claim to have identified 19 issues under four main categories – allegations against the judiciary; exposing government secrets; abuse of power and professional negligence; and seditious statements – as priorities for a further criminal probe.
“The special task force further submitted several recommendations for the government's consideration for appropriate follow-up action. Accordingly, I have ordered that further investigations be carried out immediately by the relevant enforcement agencies to investigate possible misconduct by Thomas,” Ismail was quoted as saying in local media.
Thomas, for his part, has refused to cooperate with the task force, claiming it lacks legal basis. In January, the former top prosecutor wrote an open letter to the head of the probe, which he described as“unconstitutional,” saying the government-initiated investigation“sets a dangerous precedent by putting at risk the independence of the office of Attorney General.”
If found guilty of violating penal code articles and laws such as the Official Secrets Act (OSA), the Sedition Act and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) Act, the 70-year-old Thomas could be jailed for years and forced to pay hefty fines. The Attorney-General's Chambers has yet to announce any legal proceedings against him.
“It is highly unusual for the prime minister to take such a confrontative position from the outset, intentionally or unintentionally sending a signal to authorities that they ought to pin Tommy Thomas on some criminal charges by hook or by crook,” said Lim Wei Jiet, an opposition politician, lawyer and author of several publications on constitutional law.
“If you take a step back, this is simply politics of vengeance – since Ismail Sabri can't bring himself to interfere in the judicial process or the ongoing prosecution of Najib Razak, the next convenient target would be the person who instituted the charges against Najib Razak who has already left office – Tommy Thomas,” Lim told Asia Times.
Malaysia's then-prime minister Najib Razak. Photo: AFP
Ismail's announcement of the task force's findings came as he faces separate ongoing demands from the leadership of his ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party to call a snap election to capitalize on a string of recent local election victories. Indeed, it is widely speculated that the premier may soon dissolve parliament to initiate snap polls.
Political observers see the targeting of Thomas in the run-up to elections as a way of casting criminal charges against former premier Najib Razak, who began serving a 12-year prison term on August 23, UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and others as being politically motivated and scoring political points with the conservative Malay Muslim electorate.
Senior UMNO leaders have long accused the reformist Pakatan Harapan (PH) government helmed by Mahathir Mohamad from 2018 to 2020 of selective prosecution. Some UMNO figures were openly and vehemently opposed to Thomas' appointment, with some asserting the post should be held exclusively by a member of the Malay Muslim majority, though is not a legal requirement.
Malaysia's then-king reportedly opposed the nomination of Thomas, an ethnic Indian Christian, preferring that a Malay Muslim serve the role, resulting in a two-week impasse prior to his swearing-in. In his memoir, Thomas claimed Mahathir had initially asked him to resign a day after his appointment due to strong Malay opposition before eventually changing his mind.
Critics have branded Thomas as“anti-Malay” for his memoirs' seemingly condescending characterization of the country's civil service, three-quarters of which are ethnic Malay, as inefficient and for purportedly questioning the discretionary powers of the federal monarch, or Yang di-Pertuan Agong, who is widely revered as the guardian of Malay and Islamic interests.
PH chairman and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim notably offered a of Thomas' book, stating that it“betrays a deep-seated, even Freudian-like, prejudice against Malays fomented through years of racism.” Despite his criticism, Anwar defended Thomas' right to express his views and said he was“vehemently opposed” to the memoir being banned.
Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has also taken aim at Thomas. Photo: AFP Forum via Anadolu Agency / Surya Fachrizal Aprianus
Thomas has more recently been rebuked for a speech at a separate book launch last month where he said voters had to ask themselves whether having a“Malay government” had made the country better off, referring to the racial composition of the two administrations that governed since the fall of Mahathir's government in February 2020, which prompted Thomas' resignation.
Najib was predictably no fan of Thomas' memoir. The ex-premier brought a defamation suit against him last October, claiming that he implied Najib was guilty of conspiracy in the grisly 2006 murder of Mongolian model Altantuya Shaariibuu, whose killing by members of Najib's security detail was allegedly linked to her role as an interpreter for a business associate of the former leader.
The former premier's legal team also filed a separate civil suit against Thomas last year for alleged wrongful prosecution in 1MDB-related and other criminal cases during his tenure as AG, contending that Thomas had committed misfeasance in public office, malicious process and negligence. Thomas' lawyers have argued the suit amounts to an abuse of the court process.
While Thomas' views have provoked heated debate and criticism from both sides of the political aisle, Ismail's moves against him amount to“a direct and unwarranted interference in the administration of justice in the country,” argued P Gunasegaram, a former news editor and independent political analyst, in a recent commentary.
“Nothing that Thomas has said in [his] book discloses information so vital and crucial to the country that it endangers its security, and nothing that he has said has caused serious public alarm,” Gunasegaram wrote.“What his book has done is raise serious debate about the administration of justice in the country and pressures that officers of the law and judiciary face.”
Follow Nile Bowie on Twitter at @NileBowie
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