First published by Razlan Rashid on 17 March 2016

Malaysian opposition leader Wan Azizah Wan Ismail (center) listens to journalists following a sit-in at the corridors of the parliament, in Kuala Lumpur, July 7, 2015.

The offices of the attorney general and public prosecutor should be separated to ensure that criminal justice is enforced fairly and impartially in Malaysia, the local chapter of corruption watchdog Transparency International said Thursday.

The attorney general is appointed by the prime minister and holds the parallel office of public prosecutor, but no single person should hold so much power over the nation’s criminal justice system, according to Transparency International-Malaysia (TI-M) and civil society groups.

The current set-up “has made it easier for unchecked and inappropriate decisions to be made in relation to cases involving high-profile individuals,” TI-M President Akhbar Satar said in a statement.

The system should also be changed so that the public prosecutor is answerable to parliament and not the executive branch, Akhbar argued.

“This separation of powers as a method of checks and balance will ensure that prosecution decisions can be made without any fear or favor and protected from political interference,” he said.

Akhbar went on to cite the recent decision by Attorney Gen. Mohamed Apandi Ali to clear Prime Minister Najib Razak of potential corruption charges in financial scandals linked to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad state investment fund.

“Very clearly,” Apandi “needs to come clean and be transparent” about this decision, Akhbar said.

In January, Apandi announced that his office was closing investigations into corruption scandals facing the prime minister, particularly one involving a deposit of U.S. $681 million into his private bank accounts before the 2013 general election.

Apandi said “no criminal offense” had been committed, that most of the money had been returned , and that it was a “personal donation” from Saud Arabia’s royal family.

Najib has maintained he never took money for private gain. But last July, the month when news of the scandal broke, he sacked Abdul Gani Patail, the attorney general at the time who was heading an inter-agency task force probing that and other scandals associated with 1MDB.

On Thursday, Apandi did not respond to requests from BenarNews seeking comment.

‘A serious structural issue’

University of Malaya law professor Azmi Shahrom agreed that the public prosecutor’s office should be autonomous from the attorney-general’s office.

“TI-M is correct. But it could only work if our version of the prosecution service is independent and free from government interference. There is no way a Barisan Nasional government will allow that,” Azmi told BenarNews, referring to the coalition that has ruled Malaysia since 1957.

Elsewhere, the head of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) described the current set-up as problematic.

“In cases involving any member of the executive, especially the Prime Minister, extraordinary measures must be taken to guarantee that deliberations on prosecution will be handled independently. There is a serious structural issue with the Attorney General’s Chambers which impacts upon public trust in the institution,” IDEAS Chief Executive Officer Wan Saiful Wan Jan said Thursday in a statement.

And according to G25, a civil society group led by influential people from across Malaysian society, a fundamental conflict of interest exists in the functions and powers bestowed on the attorney general.

“It is poor governance that the Attorney General is the legal advisor for the government of Malaysia and also the final arbiter on decisions to prosecute,” the G25 said in a statement.

Under pressure

The current attorney general is facing pressure over his decision to close the investigations into Najib.

On Tuesday, opposition leader Wan Azizah Wan Ismail called for Apandi to be removed from office by submitting a parliamentary motion for a no-confidence vote against the attorney general. But Speaker Pandikar Amin Mulia rejected the motion.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian Bar Association this week lodged a case with the Supreme Court asking the justices to review Apandi’s handling of the investigations connected to the prime minister.

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