BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – The Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) is looking into engaging external counsel to prosecute a high-profile corruption case in which two former judges stand accused of embezzling $7 million from Brunei’s court system.

In an interview with The Scoop, Attorney General YB Dato Paduka Hj Hairol Arni Hj Abdul Majid said an announcement would be made soon regarding who will represent the prosecution during trial.

“There’s been a few pre-trial reviews before the courts, and it’s all about sorting out the schedules and all the number of witnesses and the charges,” he said on the sidelines of the opening of the Legal Year on Thursday.

“There will be a mention in open court soon before the chief justice. After that date we’ll know what’s going on. I don’t know if the defence is ready but they should be. The charges have been there for a long time.”

The defendants — Ramzidah Pehin Datu Kesuma Diraja Col (rtd) Hj Abdul Rahman and her husband Hj Nabil Daraina Pehin Dato Ustaz Hj Badaruddin — are facing 157 charges for criminal breach of trust, money laundering and corruption in relation to the misappropriation of more than $7 million from the High Court’s Bankruptcy Office, where Ramzidah was a deputy official receiver until December 2017.

The cash was allegedly used to buy $3.2 million worth of luxury cars and other high-value assets.

The duo — who were both senior officials in Brunei’s judiciary — pleaded not guilty to all 157 charges last September and will face trial sometime this year. The accused have indicated they will retain Queen’s Counsel to represent them.

Law Society President On Hung Zheng said aside from the damage done to court coffers, other stakeholders have also been affected by the missing funds, including creditors and debtors.

“We don’t know how to address the issue of creditors not getting paid, and debtors not being discharged from bankruptcy,” he told The Scoop. “For debtors, one of the effects is that you cannot obtain loans [from financial institutions], your finances are monitored by the courts, and you will be in legal limbo for some time if it’s not resolved.”

Lawyers attend the opening of the Legal Year held at the Supreme Court building on Jan 10, 2019. Photo: Hazimul Harun/The Scoop

When asked if public confidence in the judiciary had been damaged due to the scandal, Dato Hj Hairol — who himself was a High Court judge before being appointed attorney general last August — said he didn’t believe that was the case:

“The integrity and independence of the judiciary is there, it has not been eroded.

“In any institution this could happen.”

He added that the AGC amended the Penal Code last October to introduce higher penalties for criminal breach of trust, in part due to the corruption scandal.

“But this amendment has also been overdue for 20 years. Malaysia and Singapore have done [their revisions] long ago.

“In Brunei, we have seen regular cases of criminal breach of trust. [The sentencing parameters contained within legislation], it’s been very lenient. Now CBT cases involve millions [of dollars], and can take place across borders.”

The legislative amendment, gazetted just two months ago on October 30, increases the penalty for criminal breach of trust from five to 10 years. Meanwhile, the penalty for criminal breach of trust committed by a civil servant, banker and merchant or agent has increased from 10 years to a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.