KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) Dec 06 - Malaysia's government has appointed a former ruling party lawyer as the No. 2 judge in the country, provoking sharp concerns among the Bar Council and the opposition at his meteoric rise through the ranks.
Zaki Azmi raised eyebrows when he became the first lawyer to be directly appointed as a judge in the Federal Court three months ago. He was named president of the Court of Appeal on Wednesday night by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
As president of the Court of Appeal, he is second only to the country's chief justice, a post he could assume next year.
Zaki's appointment was surprising, «given that there were other suitable candidates in terms of seniority and service in the judiciary,» Bar Council president Ambiga Sreenevasan said in a statement late Wednesday.
His appointment comes amid questions about the integrity of Malaysia's judiciary, which many say has been compromised following allegations that top judicial appointments were manipulated.
The allegations surfaced after opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim released in September a 2002 video clip showing a prominent lawyer allegedly brokering judicial appointments while talking on the phone. The lawyer is heard identifying the person at the other end as Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim, who later became the country's chief justice.
Ahmad Fairuz retired in November. His post was filled Wednesday by Abdul Hamid Mohamad, who is due to retire next year. Zaki is the front runner to replace Abdul Hamid.
Lim Kit Siang, head of the opposition Democratic Action Party, said Zaki's quick rise was a shock. "His appointment as Court of Appeal president has confirmed he is only half a beat away from the top post," he said.
Zaki previously served as the legal adviser to the United Malays National Organization, the dominant party in the ruling coalition. He also chaired the party's disciplinary committee, and was on the board of several companies.
"There are reservations given his very active role as UMNO lawyer in the past two decades, which may compromise the integrity and independence needed of judges," Lim said.
Ambiga, the Bar Council president, said concerns about Zaki's links must be dispelled by a display of integrity and exemplary performance on the bench.
"Society must be left with no doubt that the judiciary is free from any allegiances or alliances and that it is above reproach in all respects," she added.
In Malaysia, the prime minister recommends candidates for top judicial posts. The hereditary rulers of the country's nine states endorse the candidates, but they usually accept the government's list.