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AP: Sacked 12 Yrs Ago, Former Judge Challenges Malaysia's PM
By Dow Jones

3/5/2001 10:48 pm Thu

[Mahathir dihempap masalah lagi, dan kali ini ia mungkin terlalu kritikal. Tun Salleh Abbas akan membawa kes royalti - dan publisitinya mungkin akan menjerut Mahathir. Jika ia berlangsung di sekitar perhimpunan agung Umno tentu lebih teraib Mahathir terkena.

PAS nampaknya sudah tahu kelemahan Mahathir. Inilah saatnya untuk menggempurnya. Kelemahan Mahathir adalah keaibannya. Dia harus dijerut dengan perbuatan sendirinya juga barulah rakyat akan membuka mata. - Editor] pi_news_id=589082&pi_ctry=my&pi_lang=en

Sacked 12 Yrs Ago, Former Judge Challenges Malaysia's PM

KUALA LUMPUR (AP)--Their last meeting took place in 1988 and lasted under eight minutes. When it ended, Salleh Abas was removed as Malaysia's top judge and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad strengthened his hold on power and went on to become Asia's longest-serving leader.

After 12 years, Salleh and Mahathir are set to fight again in a court contest over oil revenue. It could change the political landscape in this Southeast Asian country and determine how strong a challenge Islamic fundamentalists can pose to the prime minister.

The prize is an estimated 1 billion ringgit (US$1=MYR3.8) in revenues that have been paid every year by the national energy company, Petroliam Nasional Bhd. (P.PET), or Petronas, to the poor eastern state of Terengganu, which has ample deposits of oil and natural gas.

When Terengganu's state government was ruled by Mahathir's United Malays National Organization, the country's largest political party, the oil revenues were paid without fuss.

But in late 1999, voters in Terengganu voted for the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party to run the state, defeating Mahathir's UMNO. Within months, the royalties were cut off. Now, the state government, with Salleh as a senior minister, is suing to get them back.

Government officials' biggest fear is that the Islamic party, which survives on donations put in skull caps passed around at gatherings, could turn the royalties into a political war chest for the next elections, which must be called by 2004.

The party has made clear its goal: to turn this country - which under Mahathir has become one of Asia's most prosperous - into an Islamic state. In areas where the party now rules, Muslim women must wear headscarfs and non-Muslims have to dress "decently." Liquor is sold only to non-Muslims. Pool halls and betting shops are banned, and men and women must stand in separate lines at supermarkets.

Political Implications Of Suit Being Watched

Terengganu's suit against the government and Petronas, which is run out of the prime minister's office, was filed in March. Though it isn't likely to come to trial for months, the case is being watched carefully for its political implications.

Mahathir's party has ruled this nation of 22 million people, mostly Malay Muslims, since independence from Britain in 1957. But the Islamic party's 1999 election victory showed UNMO's hold is weakening. The party now controls two of Malaysia's 13 states and is Parliament's largest single opposition group.

The fundamentalists have capitalized on popular anger over Mahathir sacking his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, who was later imprisoned on what many view as trumped-up charges of s###my and corruption.

Anwar's case added to disillusionment with the government. On the other hand, many Malays view Salleh as a something of a martyr because of his firing as Lord President of Malaysia's courts in 1988.

"Salleh goes in as a man wronged by Mahathir seeking to put things right for the country's main opposition party," said P. Ramasamy, a political science lecturer at Malaysian National University.

Salleh became the country's top judge in 1984 as Mahathir was trimming the power of the courts and other institutions that could challenge his authority. The judiciary, seen then as fairly impartial, ran into trouble with rulings that went against the government.

Mahathir urged Salleh be fired on grounds of alleged misbehavior in 1988. The move came during a case involving the electoral practices of the prime minister's party, but he denies Salleh's removal was political.

However, Salleh wrote in his book "Mayday for Justice" that Mahathir's request for him to resign - and his firing after he refused to quit - grew out of politics.

"I have no doubt, and few would now disagree, that it was the UMNO saga that led to my destruction as a judge," Salleh wrote.

Petronas Case Could Be Test Case For Judicial Integrity

The incident is seen as the first step in politicizing the courts, a process that eventually led to Anwar's conviction. Though officials deny it, opinion is widespread that Anwar's only crime was challenging Mahathir's rule.

Salleh, a devout Muslim, was quietly practicing law when the Islamic party drew him back into the limelight. His views on the need for justice suddenly had new appeal after Anwar was fired.

In the 1999 polls, Salleh won a provincial seat in his home state of Terengganu and was named a minister. He did much of the work on the state's lawsuit, which alleges the government's failure to pay oil revenues was a breach of contract.

The Petronas case also will be a test of attempts to restore judicial integrity. In an interview with The Associated Press, Salleh, now 71 and gray, spoke of his own firing as leading to the decline in the rule of law.

"I still harbor the feeling of injustice being done to me," he said, "but the real sufferers are the people who lost a judiciary that was highly respected."

(END) Dow Jones Newswires 03-05-01

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