‘Independent Individual’? The Very Strange Case Of Special Prosecutor Shafee Abdullah

Sarawak Report has invited lawyer Shafee Abdullah to explain the very large personal payments made to him by Prime Minister Najib Razak out of money stolen from 1MDB totalling RM9.5 million.

Task Force investigation documents show that the second payment of RM5.3 million was paid just a fortnight before the Appeal Court over-turned an earlier High Court acquittal of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on charges of sodomy.  In an unorthodox move, the private barrister had been brought in to lead that prosecution by the Najib administration.

So far Shafee has not provided any explanation or responded to the press.  Sarawak Report understands that he cancelled engagements at the end of the week, citing he was unwell. He has not denied the figures, which are contained in documents where other payments have been confirmed (including payments to Najib’s brother).

Labour of Love?

It raises some extraordinary issues, because back in 2014 the public was told to believe that this high-powered barrister, a known favourite of the Najib administration, had conducted the entire Appeal prosecution against Anwar for a paltry sum of just RM1,000 (US$230 at present rates).

This was the sum that Nancy Shukri, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, provided to Parliament when questioned on this very matter, owing to the unusual nature of Shafee’s appointment to a job that would normally have been done by members of the Public Prosecution Service.

The opposition parties had suspected that Shafee must have been paid far above the normal rates at public expense to conduct the Appeal and then to further take the case through the Federal Court.  However, Shukri stunned them with the opposite information.

In an extraordinary statement she said that the government had made an exception to normal rules of privacy in this case, in order to disclose the miscroscopic fee.  In fact, the minster added, Shafee had wanted to do the job for nothing at all, hence the token payment. “We wanted to be transparent” she said:

“Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Nancy Shukri said she had obtained the agreement of the Attorney-General’s Chambers and Muhammad Shafee himself to reveal the amount after the matter was raised repeatedly in the house.

The matter was kept confidential to respect the ethics of professionalism and confidentiality of communication between employer and client, she said when replying to a question from Er Teck Hwa (DAP-Bakri), reported Bernama.

Er had wanted to know how much Muhammad Shafee was paid as the lead prosecutor during the hearing of Anwar’s case in the Court of Appeal and Federal Court.

The Federal Court upheld a Court of Appeal decision convicting Anwar and sentencing him to five year’s jail after finding him guilty of having sodomised his former aide, Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan, in 2008.

Nancy also said that Muhammad Shafee had not sought a fee for his service but an agreement was reached on the payment.

“He had not wanted any payment for his service but we wanted to be transparent and after providing him with the terms of reference, we agreed on a fee,” she said.

Nancy also dismissed Er’s assumption that Muhammad Shafee’s appointment as the lead prosecutor indicated the weakness of staff in the Attorney-General’s Chambers to handle the case.

She said the appointment of an independent individual was aimed at averting accusations by certain quarters. [Malaysian Times, March 2015]

However, central to the opposition case was that Shafee Abdullah was not an “independent individual”.  He was a known close confidante of the Prime Minister, who had a direct interest in jailing Anwar, a powerful political opponent who had got more votes at the previous election.

Shafee Abdullah was also a material witness to the case, according to the defence, because the lawyer had been in Najib’s house the very day and time that the alleged victim admitted he had been discussing his plans to denounce Anwar Ibrahim with the Prime Minister (a meeting Najib had at first attempted to deny).

Anwar’s case, therefore, was that there had been a clear conspiracy to frame and jail him and that Shafee Abdullah was at the centre of it.  However, the court refused to dismiss the unusual move to appoint this “independent individual” to conduct the prosecution in the place of the prosecution service.

Independent Individual?

What is anyone to make of it?  For a barrister to accept just a token fee to undertake such a major public prosecution must be without precedent.  Having done so, how could Shafee then argue that he had undertaken this frankly sordid case except for motives of personal conviction?  And if he was personally motivated as to the outcome, how could he be described as “an independent individual” suitable to conduct the case?

Shafee’s motivation is in fact clearly known to all.  He wanted Anwar jailed on behalf of his close political friend, possibly because he was also convinced that Malaysia would be better off without Anwar. However, such motives have no place in any court room.

To add to the evidence about his personal passion over the case Shafee went on after Anwar’s jailing to conduct ‘road shows’ around Malaysia, lecturing audiences as to why the conviction was correct and sound.  He was censured by colleagues for sharing alleged details of the case, which had been barred from open court during these road shows, presumably with the purpose of sullying Anwar’s reputation further with voters. He later lost his libel action against the members of the Bar behind that censure.

Despite the bizarre nature of these circumstances, where it would seem that Shafee had damned himself by agreeing to conduct such a case for nothing, the courts of Malaysia continued to accept his untoward role in the trial and indeed the judges eventually found in his favour, curtly overturning the finding of the original High Court judge, who had presided for years over the details of the case.

Payment after All?

So, now that it has emerged that Shafee in fact did receive an enormous cheque from Najib himself during this exact same period, it is only fair and acceptable to ask whether this was in fact his payment for carrying out the Anwar job?

In fact, opposition spokesmen have already lodged a police report about the matter and demanded full details of this payment.  Anwar’s lawyers are considering their next moves in the light of the emerging probability that his prosecution may have been paid for by an interested party who was directly connected to the case, namely Najib Razak.

So far there has been silence from Shafee and Najib.  However, if Shafee was simultaneously conducting major services for the Prime Minister at the time of prosecuting Anwar this is clearly the time they should be revealing this information.

It doesn’t make matters much better, of course. Because, if Najib was also a client of Shafee at the time of the trial, conflicts of interests surely abound?

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