BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – The High Court on Monday denied an application to recuse the presiding judge in Brunei’s most anticipated corruption trial, in which two former judicial officials stand accused of corruption, money laundering and criminal breach of trust.

Defence counsel Simon Henry Farrell, QC, said there was a “risk of judicial bias” since Justice Gareth John Lugar-Mawson had professional relationships with three prosecution witnesses as well as the first defendant, Ramzidah Pehin Datu Kesuma Diraja Col (rtd) Hj Abdul Rahman.

“If the judge was associated with a member of the public involved in this case, and the credibility of that witness is crucial in the judgement of the case, then a recusal should take place,” Farrell argued.

Jonathan Caplan, QC, who is leading the government’s prosecution team, said the attempt to recuse Justice Lugar-Mawson was “misconceived”.

He explained that the three witnesses in question, who are officers at the Bankruptcy Office of the High Court, would give evidence relating to the procedures of dealing with bankruptcy files.

The real issue at trial is whether or not Ramzidah made cash withdrawals and if so, what she did with those cash withdrawals, Caplan said, adding that these were not issues that would be addressed by these three witnesses.

Justice Lugar-Mawson eventually ruled that he would not recuse himself from the case as he was “satisfied there would be no bias”, saying he only maintained professional relationships with the people in question, not social ones.

“Any contact with them was of a professional nature since we worked in the same building, and was infrequent since my appointment as a visiting judge in late 2007,” he said.

Lugar-Mawson has overseen some of Brunei’s most high-profile corruption cases over the past 10 years, including the graft trial of a former development minister and a cash-for-tenders scandal which saw the jailing of eight Brunei Shell Petroleum employees.

He was a Hong Kong High Court judge for nine years before being appointed judicial commissioner of Brunei’s Supreme Court in 2007.

New charges

The prosecution also tendered a set of 40 new charges against the two defendants, which will replace the original 157 charges they were facing.

The new charge sheet alleges that during her time as deputy official receiver of the Bankruptcy Office between 2004 to 2017, Ramizdah made substantial cash withdrawals from 255 debtor accounts amounting to $15.75 million — more than double the amount of cash that was originally thought to have gone missing.

The prosecution alleges that with the help of her husband Hj Nabil Daraina Pehin Dato Ustaz Hj Badaruddin, a former senior magistrate, Ramzidah withdrew the money from debtor accounts at Bank Islam Brunei Darussalam and deposited it into their joint account at Standard Chartered Bank, as well as their bank accounts in the United Kingdom.

A statement released by the Attorney General’s Chambers on Monday claimed that both defendants also used the cash to buy luxury cars valued at over $3 million, designer goods worth $429,000 and watches worth approximately $152,000.

The couple has pleaded not guilty to the new charges, which include criminal breach of trust by a public servant; money laundering; and possession of unexplained property. 

Summarising his clients’ case, Farrell said Ramzidah withdrew the cash to put into fixed deposit accounts for debtors, but the prosecution disputes that this was a practice of the Bankruptcy Office and says there are no records of such accounts.

Both counsel requested a one-week adjournment before trial proceedings begin on March 12.