Malaysian lawyers' march defies police blockades

If lawyers are coming to the street, then something is very wrong, Ambiga Sreenevasan, the Malaysian Bar Council's president, said on September 26 when she addressed bar members gathered at the Palace of Justice.

The release on September 19 by Anwar Ibrahim (de facto leader of the Keadilan Party) of a video clip showing a conversation between corporate lawyer V.K. Linggam and Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz about fixing the appointment of senior judges has raised an outcry from many groups, including Bar Council members and the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM).

On September 21, the PSM demanded the immediate suspension of the chief justice and for a tribunal to be set up to investigate him and all other judges associated with and appointed by him. At the protest, PSM secretary-general S. Arutchelvan said: "This is one of the historical events in Malaysia's history, boosted by the uprising of the monks in Burma as well as the lawyers in Pakistan."

The lawyers marched three kilometres to the prime minister's office, despite some four police roadblocks. Seven buses organised by the bar were blocked, but some brave lawyers defied the blockade and walked five kilometres to join protest.

The Putrajaya police chief attempted to prevent the march, saying he would only allow five representatives to go to the PM's office, and around four truckloads of officers were on standby.

Yet chants of "Who are we — Malaysian Bar; What do we want — justice" were heard as a group of lawyers led by the protest organisers marched with banners calling for a clean judiciary. They were welcomed with thunderous applause from the waiting crowd.

The Great Walk for Justice was led by council members of the bar and was joined by members of NGOs, trade unionists, opposition political party members and others.

A delegation of Bar Council members went inside the prime minister's "palace", and when they returned an hour later the crowd was soaking wet from the rain. Sreenevasan told the crowd that the 2000 lawyers who rallied had made an important impact on cleaning the judiciary

Though Bar Council members are appreciative of the government's effort to set up a committee of three members to investigate the video-clip, they demand that the government set up a royal commission to investigate the independence of the judiciary and the appointment of judges.