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Malaysia's former king grieves over public's loss of trust in judges

By SEAN YOONG, Associated Press

Kuala Lumpur, Oct 29 - Malaysia's government faced mounting pressure Monday to pursue judicial reforms, as the country's former king voiced distress that judges are losing their case in the court of public opinion.

Sultan Azlan Muhibbuddin Shah, addressing a conference of lawyers, said there have been recent "disturbing events relating to the judiciary" - an apparent reference to a scandal involving a video tape that allegedly provides proof of judicial corruption.

"Sadly I must acknowledge there has been some disquiet about our judiciary," Azlan said. "I am driven nostalgically to look back to a time when our judiciary was the pride of our region, and our neighbors spoke admiringly of our legal system."

Azlan, the highly respected sultan of northern Perak state, stressed that "a judiciary loses its value and service to the community if there is no public confidence in its decision-making."

Azlan was king for five years through 1994. Each of Malaysia's nine hereditary state rulers take turns as the country's constitutional monarch under a unique rotational system. Their role is largely ceremonial, and the power to govern resides with Parliament and the prime minister.

The sultan's comments come after an opposition party last month released a video clip in which a prominent lawyer is allegedly taped brokering the appointment of top judges in 2002.

The government has set up an independent panel to probe the authenticity of the video, but says there is no need to overhaul the judiciary.

Perceptions that people have lost faith in judges are the "opinion of some people, not necessarily the majority," Malaysia's law minister, Nazri Aziz, said Monday.

"We respect the opinions. The government has (its) own perception, but we listen," he said.

Malaysia's Bar Council, which represents 12,000 lawyers, has said the video scandal illustrates the need to change the procedure for appointing judges.

Currently, senior judges are chosen and recommended for appointment by the prime minister, though the king formally appoints them. The Bar Council wants an impartial commission to evaluate candidates.

Bar Council President Ambiga Sreenevasan, in a speech to the same conference that the former king addressed, said that lawyers see increasing signs of a lack of trust in judges, such as contract clauses for arbitration outside judicial jurisdiction.

"In a nation like ours with aspirations to a first-world economy, the administration of justice is key," Ambiga said in a speech to the Bar Council's Malaysian Law Conference.

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