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Malaysian police officers form a human chain to block lawyers wanting to walk to Kuala Lumpur’s parliament building in a protest aiming to uphold judicial independence. Photo: EPA-EFE

Malaysian lawyers’ ‘walk for judicial independence’ gets off on the wrong foot

  • Hundreds of lawyers are angry about ‘anti-corruption’ probe into Court of Appeal judge who convicted former PM Najib Razak in 1MDB scandal
  • But they were prevented from setting off on a protest walk to parliament when police blocked two car park exits, and a one-hour stand-off followed

A long-awaited “Walk for Judicial Independence” by hundreds of Malaysian lawyers unhappy about the unprecedented ‘anti-corruption’ probe of a senior judge who convicted former Prime Minister Najib Razak ended on Friday before it began.

Local media said around 300 lawyers turned up for a planned 1km Kuala Lumpur uphill walk from a car park to parliament, amid worries judicial independence was under threat.

But police blocked the car park’s two exits leading to a one-hour stand-off under the scorching midmorning sun, and both parties claiming the law was on their side.

“We are lawyers, of course we act according to the law,” one lawyer was heard shouting.

Malaysian police block lawyers wanting to walk to Kuala Lumpur’s parliament building during a Friday protest aimed at upholding judicial independence. Photo: EPA-EFE

The tension only ended when deputy law minister Mas Ermieyati Samsudin – herself a former lawyer and bar member – arrived to meet the Malaysian Bar Council’s leadership and accept a memorandum about judiciary independence on behalf of the government.

“Hopefully, justice and the judiciary in this country will continue to be strengthened,” she said. She also said “thanks for all the cooperation. I apologise for the inconvenience”, the latter phrase unusual given that Malaysian politicians tend to rarely eat humble pie.

The minister was greeted by Bar Council president Karen Cheah, who took her hand on a makeshift stage in the middle of the car park, surrounded by lawyers in suits.

Cheah reiterated the walk’s purpose, which came after an anti-corruption probe into Court of Appeal judge Nazlan Ghazali, who presided over the 2020 conviction of the country’s former leader and still influential politician Najib Razak.


Former Malaysia PM Najib’s multibillion-dollar corruption trial begins

Former Malaysia PM Najib’s multibillion-dollar corruption trial begins
His was the first of several major cases linked to the nation’s multibillion-dollar 1MDB financial scandal.

Some lawyers have described the probe as tantamount to judicial interference.

“We believe that the disclosure of the name of this judge, a sitting judge, is unprecedented and not good for the judiciary as it intimidates the judiciary,” said Cheah, who said the Bar Council had expected 1,000 lawyers to join the walk.


In 2011, prominent legal activist and former Bar Council president Ambiga Sreenevasan led a similar march in the country’s administrative capital Putrajaya, 35km (21 miles) from Kuala Lumpur.

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She was at Friday’s would-be march as well and said it was not illegal. “Freedom is freedom, this is a constitutional right,” she told reporters.


Malaysia’s Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 did away with the need to apply for a police permit for mass gatherings. Instead, organisers have to notify the officer in charge of the police district within 10 days of the event date. The officer must respond outlining restrictions and conditions imposed.

The police said Friday’s march was not permitted, but the lawyers argued they did not need a permit.

Police are launching a probe into the gathering, while the Bar Council is looking into legal action against the police.


Nazlan has been the subject of smear campaigns following his conviction verdict – which he is appealing – and lawyers have insinuated that the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) may have breached norms by directly investigating Nazlan following a complaint, instead of having the judiciary probe the matter.

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The MACC has also come under fire for publicising the probe into the judge, which lawyers say undermines the integrity of the judiciary even before any findings. The Bar Council said in April that the investigation “undermines the rule of law and creates intimidation and a climate of fear”.


The MACC has said it acted within the law in initiating the investigation and noted that it had investigated other judges in the past.

Aside from lawyers, including former attorney general Tommy Thomas, several political leaders were also seen at the car park on Friday.

Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA) president Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman was there, as was former human resource minister M. Kulasegaran and activist-politician Maria Chin Abdullah. She led Bersih (Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections) before being voted into parliament in 2018.

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Opposition leader and long-time prime ministerial hopeful Anwar Ibrahim, who has claimed his incarceration for sodomy, twice, was because of political persecution, applauded the Bar Council for organising the walk.

He said it showed that the legal fraternity was still aware “of its critical role in upholding justice in the country”.

“This is a positive sign that our democracy is a constantly evolving work in progress, one strengthened by a citizenry that cares deeply about preserving the spirit of our democracy and the federal constitution,” said Anwar in a statement.