BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – It was the end of the road for two former judges after the Court of Appeal dismissed their attempt to overturn their conviction on 30 corruption-related charges.

Ramzidah Pehin Datu Kesuma Diraja Col (rtd) Hj Abdul Rahman and Hj Nabil Daraina Pehin Dato Ustaz Hj Badaruddin were jailed last year after they were found guilty of embezzling more than $15.75 million from the High Court’s Bankruptcy Office.

Justice Michael Peter Burrel delivered the court’s judgment on Wednesday, dismissing Ramzidah’s appeal against her conviction on 14 counts of criminal breach of trust and 10 counts of money laundering.

The court also dismissed Hj Nabil’s appeal against his conviction on six money laundering charges, as well as his request to reduce his five-year sentence.

“When making this decision we have regard to the aggravating factors… the victims of the crime were debtors trying to discharge themselves from bankruptcy orders, and creditors needing finance from the courts to run their businesses,” the appellate court said in its judgment.

“Both had placed their trust in the court system which the appellants abused by wholesale fraud.”

The court agreed with the prosecution’s view that the penalty imposed for both appellants was “manifestly inadequate” and granted the application to increase jail time for the duo.

Ramzidah’s sentence was increased from 10 years in prison to 15 years, while Hj Nabil’s sentence was increased from five years to seven and a half years’ imprisonment.

The panel of three judges said the couple’s fraud had damaged the public’s faith in the judicial system and that they were motivated by greed, showing no remorse.

However, the judges rejected the prosecution’s attempt to reverse Hj Nabil’s acquittal on two money laundering charges, saying there was not enough evidence to support a conviction.

Case history

The appeal brings an end to the couple’s legal battle, which began when they were arrested on July 21, 2018 and subsequently charged with 152 corruption-related offences.

The offences were later consolidated to just 40 charges relating to the misappropriation of $15.75 million from the High Court’s Bankruptcy Office.

The trial began on September 17, 2019 after months of back and forth, with the defence attempting to recuse the presiding judge as well as accusing the authorities of being heavy-handed in their investigation.

The High Court later convicted Ramzidah of a total of 14 charges of criminal breach of trust for stealing $15.75 million from debtor accounts while she served as deputy official receiver of the Bankruptcy Office.

She was also found guilty on 10 counts of money laundering, for depositing the stolen cash into a joint bank account with her husband and also transferring large sums to their accounts in the UK.

The money was used to buy luxury cars, designer goods and watches valued at over $3 million. More than $6 million is still unaccounted for.

Justice Gareth John Lugar-Mawson, who presided over the trial, said it was “impossible to find a more egregious example of criminal breach of trust in Brunei or in any other country.”

Ramzidah’s husband, Hj Nabil, himself a former senior magistrate, was convicted on six counts of money laundering and acquitted on two.

The Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) said the case represented the largest amount of money ever embezzled by a public servant.

Appeal hearing

The COVID-19 pandemic put a long delay to the couple’s appeal, which was eventually heard over three days from June 14-17, 2021 with lead counsel from both the defence and prosecution having to appear via video link from the UK and Singapore respectively.

While the appellants sought to overturn their conviction, the prosecution, led by Dato Seri Setia Davinder Singh SC, asked to extend Ramzidah’s prison sentence from 10 to 24 years, and Hj Nabil’s from five to 18 years.

Defence counsel Simon Farrell QC accused the prosecution of abuse of process by failing to disclose evidence during trial; and claimed authorities applied “aggressive” tactics when raiding the couple’s home and threatening to arrest their former lawyer Rozaiman Abdul Rahman.

The defence also argued that Justice Lugar-Mawson, a visiting judge who oversaw the trial, should have recused himself due to his previous “personal contact” with Ramzidah and three prosecution witnesses from the AGC.

Farrell added that banking records presented at trial did not comply with the Evidence Act, and that the Bankruptcy Office did not keep cash from debtors in a secure place, leaving it vulnerable to theft.

Although Ramzidah and Hj Nabil’s appeal was eventually denied, questions still remain about the procedures of the Bankruptcy Office and whether processes will be reformed to prevent further exploitation. The AGC has yet to make any public announcement directly addressing the issue.

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

This article was last updated on July 9, 2021 at 2.31pm