Judge to stay on in judiciary couple trial

|    Fadley Faisal    |

ON THE first day of proceedings in the case of a suspended judiciary couple, the defence asked for the presiding Justice to consider recusing himself from hearing the trial, based on any possibilities of being biased.

Simon Farrell QC and Sheikh Noordin Sheikh Mohammad, appearing for Ramzidah binti Pehin Datu Kesuma Diraja Colonel (Rtd) Haji Abdul Rahman and Haji Nabil Daraina bin Pehin Udana Khatib Dato Paduka Seri Setia Ustaz Haji Awang Badaruddin, applied for the presiding judge, Justice Gareth John Lugar-Mawson, to recuse himself from hearing the trial on the grounds that there is a risk of a possibility of judicial bias, whether consciously or subconsciously.

Justice Lugar-Mawson has known Ramzidah for about 10 years, and has had close contacts with three of the witnesses to be called by the prosecution during trial.

Given these relationships, it was submitted that a fair-minded observer would conclude that the judge would be biased.

Jonathan Caplan QC, appearing for the Public Prosecutor, opposed the application, submitting that the Defence Counsel’s application is misconceived.

He argued that the three witnesses to be called by the prosecution would be giving evidence on the procedures in practice when dealing with bankruptcy files.

He also said that the real issue of whether Ramzidah made cash withdrawals, or otherwise, would not be addressed by these prosecution witnesses.

The prosecution submitted further that as a sitting judge in the High Court of Brunei Darussalam, it would be inevitable for Justice Lugar-Mawson to professionally meet other judicial officers, including the defendants and the three prosecution witnesses who are from the Bankruptcy Unit at the High Court.

Caplan QC stated that as this is a case involving two judges on trial for criminal offences, some of their judicial colleagues would inevitably be relevant witnesses, particularly with regard to the charges faced by Ramzidah, since the offences also concern the discharge of her professional duties.

Furthermore, Caplan QC emphasised that, “Justice Lugar-Mawson is not a permanent judge in Brunei Darussalam, and only visits occasionally to sit as an independent judge in this jurisdiction. There is nothing that could give rise to a reasonable man believing that there is a real possibility of bias”.

Justice Lugar-Mawson ruled that he did not need to recuse himself from hearing the matter, since he was satisfied that there would be no judicial bias, as the only connection he had with Ramzidah and the three prosecution witnesses were of a professional nature; and any contact with them had been infrequent since late 2007.

As the trial began in the High Court yesterday before Justice Lugar-Mawson, the prosecution tendered new charges against the couple and sought for the discharge of the prior charges, not amounting to an acquittal.

Ramzidah pleaded not guilty to 40 new charges for offences of criminal breach of trust by a public servant under Section 409 of the Penal Code, Chapter 22; money laundering under Section 3 of the Criminal Asset Recovery Order 2012; and possession of unexplained property under Section 12(1)(b) of the Prevention of Corruption Act, Chapter 131.

Meanwhile, Haji Nabil denied the 12 charges against him of money laundering and possession of unexplained property.

In her role as the Deputy Official Receiver, the prosecution now alleges that between 2004 until 2017, Ramzidah made a total of BND15.75 million cash withdrawals from 255 Judgment Debtors’ Official Receiver’s bank accounts.

It is the prosecution’s case that she had no legitimate reason for making such cash withdrawals.

The prosecution further alleged that both the defendants dealt with the cash obtained from the criminal breach of trust by making substantial cash deposits in their local joint accounts at another bank, buying luxury items such as motor vehicles, and transferring some of the deposited money to their accounts in the United Kingdom.

The charges for depositing money into the joint accounts and for the purchasing of vehicles involved payments using BND10,000 denomination notes which are alleged to have been obtained from the withdrawals made by Ramzidah from the first bank.

Ramzidah is alleged to have in her possession six luxury cars valued at BND1.28 million, whereas Haji Nabil is alleged to have in his possession 14 luxury cars valued at BND1.8 million – all of which are disproportionate to their emoluments.

Both defendants also face charges for being in possession of designer goods such as handbags worth BND429,000 and watches worth BND152,000.

The prosecution, defence and Justice also met briefly in the Judge’s Chambers, which was then followed by Farrell QC applying for the case to resume next week for the purpose of case management.

Justice Lugar-Mawson adjourned the trial to March 12.

Deputy Public Prosectors Hajah Suhana binti Haji Sudin, Hajah Suriana binti Haji Radin, Dayangku Didi-Nuraza binti Pengiran Abdul Latiff and Muhammad Qamarul Affyian bin Abdul Rahman also appeared on behalf of the Public Prosecutor.