Oct 22, 2008

Chief Injustice

A FORMER ruling party lawyer has been appointed Malaysia's chief justice after a rapid rise through the ranks, triggering opposition criticism on Wednesday about the independence of the judiciary.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi announced on Tuesday that Mr Zaki Azmi had been promoted to be the country's most senior judge from his position as Court of Appeal president.

He was a legal adviser to the ruling United Malays National Organisation just last year when he became the first lawyer to be directly appointed as a judge in the Federal Court. Three months later he was appointed president of the Court of Appeal, the second-highest judicial posting in the country.

Mr Zaki's phenomenal rise through the ranks in a short time has raised eyebrows in the judicial fraternity.

Besides his connections to the ruling party, Mr Zaki also chaired the party's disciplinary committee, and used to be on the board of several companies. He resigned all posts when he became judge.

Mr Lim Kit Siang, a leader in the opposition Democratic Action Party, said Mr Zaki's appointment was disappointing and that there were more senior judges suited to fill the post.

Traditionally seniority determines the chief justice appointment, although there is no official system.

'This goes against the whole principle of proper judicial appointments and promotions,' he told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Mr Lim said the opposition would not protest Mr Zaki's appointment further and would give him a chance to prove his impartiality. But he said the opposition would remain 'very vigilant' to ensure that Zaki would 'rise above his past.'

Bar Council president Ambiga Sreenevasan said she was concerned about Mr Zaki's political affiliations and business connections.

'These concerns can only be dispelled by him through the conduct of his duties and by a demonstration of independence and impartiality at all times,' she said in a statement.

Mr Zaki's appointment comes amid questions about the integrity of Malaysia's judiciary, which many say has been compromised following allegations that top judicial appointments in recent years have been manipulated.

A video clip recorded secretly in 2002 - and made public by the opposition last year - showed a prominent lawyer allegedly brokering judicial appointments while talking on the phone with someone who later became the chief justice. Report from Associated Press.

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