BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – A year and a half after their arrest, the High Court jailed two long-serving members of the judiciary on Saturday for stealing more than $15.75 million from the Bankruptcy Office — the largest sum ever embezzled by a public servant.

Over the course of 14 years, the money was slowly siphoned from the Official Receiver’s account, which held debt repayments from people who had entered into bankruptcy and were trying to discharge their obligations to creditors.

The cash was used to fund the lavish lifestyle of the defendants, Ramzidah Pehin Datu Kesuma Diraja Col (rtd) Hj Abdul Rahman and Hj Nabil Daraina Pehin Dato Ustaz Hj Badaruddin, who spent over $3 million on luxury cars, designer goods and watches.

The High Court sentenced Ramzidah, who was the deputy official receiver at the Bankruptcy Office, to 10 years for each of the 14 charges of criminal breach of trust by a public servant; and five years for each of the 10 charges of money laundering — the maximum custodial sentence allowed under the relevant legislation. The judge ordered the sentences to run concurrently, meaning the defendant will serve a total of 10 years in prison.

When handing down his sentence, Justice Gareth John Lugar-Mawson said:

It is impossible to find a more egregious example of criminal breach of trust in Brunei or in any other country. For 14 years you took advantage of an imperfect system to enrich yourself and your family.

Over 200 judgment debtors were unable to discharge their debts. It is difficult to see how they and the judgment creditors can ever be compensated.

You thought your position in judiciary and society would be protect you from your crimes, but you were wrong to assume that.

For Hj Nabil — who was a senior magistrate before his suspension in January 2018 — the court sentenced him to five years for each of the six offences of money laundering. The sentences will run concurrently, meaning he will serve a total of five years in prison.

There is no doubt that you were fully aware of your wife’s activities. You could have reported it to the authorities but you were more than happy to share in the lavish lifestyle her actions provided,” said Justice Lugar-Mawson.

You abused your position in the judiciary to shield you from inquiry… There is no mitigation whatsoever.

Defence counsel Simon Farrell QC had argued for a lighter sentence, even suggesting a non-custodial sentence of community service for Hj Nabil.

He said the defendant would need protection in jail because he would be imprisoned alongside inmates he had put away during his time on the bench and as a prosecutor.

Farrell said both clients suffered from depression and other health issues, and that Hj Nabil had been denied medication since entering prison custody on Wednesday, causing “severe mental collapse”.

The QC added that the impact of the case on the family has been “profound”.

However, Justice Lugar-Mawson said both defendants threw away any chance of a reduced sentence when they chose to take the case to trial.

He added that both must receive proper medical care while in custody and authorities must put measures in place to potentially protect the defendants from fellow inmates.

The couple’s appeal against their conviction will be heard before the Court of Appeals in April. Defence counsel did apply to have their sentences deferred pending the outcome of the appeal, but the judge denied the request.

$6mn in missing funds still untraced

Lead prosecutor Jonathan Caplan QC said more than $6 million withdrawn from the Official Receiver’s account by Ramzidah is still unaccounted for.

The prosecution will apply for a benefit recovery order, which asks the court to assess the value of the benefit derived from the defendants’ crimes. The High Court will then rule on whether the couple should pay the government “an amount equal to the value of the benefit from the offence, or such lesser amount as the High Court determines”.

The prosecution has also filed a notice for a restraining order on all property seized by the Anti-Corruption Bureau, which includes 21 luxury cars and 456 luxury items such as watches, handbags, accessories and shoes. The order prohibits the property from being “dissipated, taken or dealt with in any manner as they will be subject of a confiscation order”.

Caplan said the government will ask for $1.5 million from the defendants to cover a “small proportion” of the prosecution’s costs. If they do not comply with any potential payment order issued by the court, additional time will be added to their prison sentence.

All applications made by the prosecution will be heard at a later date.

‘Sentencing parameters too lenient’

In the wake of the graft scandal, the AGC amended the Penal Code in October 2018 to introduce higher penalties for criminal breach of trust, admitting that the sentencing parameters had been lenient.

The amendment increases the maximum penalty for criminal breach of trust committed by a civil servant, banker, merchant or agent from 10 years to 20 years in prison. However, the new law cannot be applied retroactively in this case, since the defendants’ crimes took place before the amendment came into effect.

The trial also raised question marks over the procedures of the Bankruptcy Office, and whether they will be reformed to prevent further exploitation.

When approached by The Scoop at the opening of the Legal Year on Thursday, the Attorney General YB Dato Paduka Hj Hairol Arni Hj Abdul Majid declined to comment on the case until the Court of Appeals delivered its final verdict.