PUTRAJAYA: The Federal Court today awarded former Sabah chief minister Harris Salleh RM600,000 in damages for defamation over the “Double Six” tragedy where then chief minister Fuad Stephens and 10 others on board an aircraft died in a crash on June 6, 1976.
Chief Judge of Malaya Ahmad Maarop, who delivered the judgment of the five-man bench, said the defendant, Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP) president Yong Teck Lee merely published a statement by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah but with some embellishment.
“The defendant could have invoked the Reynold’s privilege of responsible journalism, but did not verify the facts of the allegation,” he said in reinstating the judgment of the High Court in 2012.
However, Ahmad said the apex court reduced the RM1 million damages awarded by the High Court as it was excessive.
Ahmad said Harris’s appeal was allowed on different grounds compared with the one delivered by the then High Court judge Abdul Rahman Sebli.
The bench chaired by Chief Justice Raus Sharif also ordered eight per cent interest to be paid on the judgment sum from the date of the High Court ruling.
Raus also ordered Yong to pay Harris RM200,000 in costs.
Other members on the bench were justice Hasan Lah, Abu Samah Nordin and Aziah Ali.
The Court of Appeal on Nov 18, 2013, allowed Yong’s appeal.
Abdul Rahman had then said he found that Yong had “crossed the line” when he insinuated that Harris had “blood on his hands” though, he added, there was nothing wrong for Yong to call for a re-investigation of the air crash.
He also found that the use of the words “crime” and “assassination” by Yong were defamatory to Harris, and had provoked speculation that Harris knew in advance that something sinister was going to happen to the aircraft and that he had left Fuad to die so that he could take over as the chief minister of Sabah.
Harris had filed a RM50-million suit against Yong and the SAPP, for allegedly insinuating that he (Harris) was involved in causing the plane crash.
Abdul Rahman said: “When he (Yong) insinuated that the plaintiff had blood on his hands and should be investigated for a possible criminal act, without making any attempt to verify the truth of the alleged new information revealed by Gua Musang MP Razaleigh, the defendant had crossed the line separating fair comment and malice.”
On Nov 16 last year, Harris said, Yong made an inaccurate statement, in fact an interpretation, when Yong asked for a re-investigation into the air crash to remove all doubts about the true cause following Razaleigh’s account of how he (Harris) had left the ill-fated aircraft at the very last moment and that had saved his life.
Lawyer Trevor Maringking appeared for Harris while Shim Mong Seng represented Yong.