Public will perceive admission of guilt on Riza’s part.
Putrajaya’s agreement with Riza Aziz to drop his money-laundering charges has sent the wrong signal to the public and raised questions on the government’s seriousness about combating corruption, said lawyers and a civil society group.
Riza, who is former prime minister Najib Razak’s stepson, was granted a discharge not amounting to an acquittal after being charged with five counts of money-laundering involving US$248 million (RM1.07 billion) via a Hollywood production house.
He paid a compound amounting to several million ringgit, lead prosecutor Gopal Sri Ram told the Kuala Lumpur Sessions Court on Thursday, adding that the government is expected to recover overseas assets estimated at US$107.3 million as part of a deal to drop the charges.
The 43-year-old Riza, who faced five years’ jail and a maximum fine of RM5 million if convicted, never went through a day of trial.
“So, the moral of the story is this – if you are a thief, make sure you steal double the amount you intended because when you get caught, just offer to give back half and you will get off scot-free,” senior lawyer Americk Sidhu told The Malaysian Insight.
“Let’s call a spade a spade. What this is really about is buying yourself out of a crime. That’s what it all boils down to.”
He said the deal has sent a signal that the public will perceive as an admission of guilt on Riza’s part.
“If Riza is not guilty, why is he offering to repay? The fact that he is offering to repay means he admits guilt.
“If someone who is charged with an offence admits guilt, they are normally convicted and sentenced.
“And of course, the question on everyone’s mind now is, what if Najib offers to pay back US$1.3 billion?” he said, referring to the Pekan MP’s graft and money-laundering trials involving RM2.3 billion in 1Malaysia Development Bhd funds, one of which is slated to resume on Tuesday.
Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism executive director Cynthia Gabriel said while plea bargains are part of legal practice to avoid lengthy court battles, the circumstances behind Riza’s discharge were “very strange”.
“Why was it done? This is a case of high public interest, of grand corruption and money-laundering.
“There was already a settlement with the US Department of Justice (amounting to US$60 million).
“So, what was the deal here? Surely the alleged theft of public funds cannot be let off through a plea bargain?”
She said it is important for the authorities to come clean over who facilitated this process, and why.
“This cannot be the escape route given to corrupt criminals, by cooperating to recover the stolen money and getting away with it.”
She added that it could set a “bad precedent” for other corruption trials.
“With today’s growing global threat of cross-border corruption, greater punitive action should be taken to recover stolen assets, not a relaxing of the rules.”
She said while asset recovery is mostly a civil process, money-laundering and corruption are criminal activities, and punishments are clearly provided for in the Anti-Money Laundering Act, Penal Code and Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission Act.
Criminal lawyer Lee Shee Pin said it is common practice for counsel representing clients accused of criminal charges to send a representation to the Attorney-General’s Chambers with a view to having the charges withdrawn or reduced.
Should the prosecution decide on a trial instead, AGC would need to dedicate resources, time, investigators, a prosecution team and paperwork, as well as locate witnesses and take their statements, he said.
“This process (plea bargain) is specifically provided for in the law. The accused is not being ‘let off’ in the sense that they are not paying any price.
“If they go down this road, the accused will still need to fulfil his end of the agreement in terms of paying the compound and helping the authorities recover the money. If they fail to do so, they can be prosecuted over the same offence again.
“The public needs to understand that although these people are accused of stealing money, we still need to go through the court process to prove their guilt, which is uncertain.
“The accused might be found not guilty in the end due to a lack of evidence, failure to prove certain elements of the offence, or even based on a technical argument. So, it’s about weighing which option is better.”
Lawyer Collin Arvind Andrew said the discretion to initiate and discontinue prosecution lies with the attorney-general acting as the public prosecutor under Article 145(3) of the federal constitution, read together with Section 376(1) of the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC).
Such representation may also result in the prosecution agreeing to withdraw additional charges, with the withdrawn charges taken into consideration under Section 171A of CPC when passing the sentence.
“Depending on the nature of the offence, there is also a formal process of plea bargaining under Section 172C of CPC, subject to the deputy public prosecutor agreeing to the same. Such an application can be filed in court and the matter disposed of accordingly,” said Collin.
However, he said, there is a contradiction between the statements by MACC chief Azam Baki and former attorney-general Tommy Thomas, who has denied agreeing to accept Riza’s representation.
“Perhaps the current A-G, Idrus Harun, may wish to clarify the matter to avoid negative public perception.”