Malaysian lawyers welcome scandal videotape probe

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KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 17 (Reuters) Malaysian lawyers and the opposition gave a tepid welcome today to government plans for a panel to probe opposition claims of judicial misconduct, and urged that the inquiry be given the widest scope possible.

The plan to set up a Royal Commission, which has the power to compel witnesses to give evidence, follows recommendations by a three-man panel tasked with determining the authenticity of a videotape that the opposition says backs up its claims.

Lawyers and opposition parties have been pushing for a royal commission, saying the three-member independent panel did not have enough powers to do the job.

''We certainly welcome it and fully support the setting-up of a royal commission of inquiry,'' said Ambiga Sreenevasan, the president of the Malaysian Bar Council, a grouping of the country's 12,000 lawyers.

''The next important thing is to know what the terms of reference are,'' she told Reuters in a telephone interview. ''We hope it will be wide terms of reference that allow the commission of inquiry to investigate all the issues concerned.'' The Bar Council staged a rare march in September to press for a royal commission to investigate the videotape, which the opposition says bears out its claim that a senior lawyer used political connections to fix judicial appointments.

Malaysia's prime minister said the government would set up a royal commission, state news agency Bernama reported yesterday.

''We've agreed to set up the commission. Now we're deciding on the terms of reference, the tasks to be undertaken by the commission,'' Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said.

The video has touched a nerve in Malaysia's judiciary, whose reputation has been under question since the late 1980s, when the head of the Supreme Court was removed from office after a clash between then premier Mahathir Mohamad and the judiciary.

Mahathir also introduced constitutional changes in 1988 that limited judges' powers and, critics say, effectively ensured that government decisions could be protected from legal challenge.

Malaysian opposition leader Lim Kit Siang said he could only offer a conditional welcome for the news, because he feared the terms of the inquiry would be too limited to resolve the crisis of confidence in the integrity and independence of the judiciary.

''There is a disturbing indication that it will be a very restricted and circumscribed inquiry,'' Lim, who heads the ethnic Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party, said in a statement.

Abdullah said three ministers asked to provide legal input on the panel's report would do so at a weekly cabinet meeting on Wednesday, and the commission's members would be picked after the scope of its inquiry had been set, Bernama added.

''It's important to have the right people on it -- independent people,'' Malaysian Bar Council chief Sreenevasan said. ''There are lots of retired judges who know the system and would be happy to help.'' REUTERS SYU RK1225

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