PUTRAJAYA: Social distancing resulted in the number of judges in two criminal appeals in the Federal Court reduced to a minimum of three as required under the law.
Since January 2012, the apex court has always lined up five judges to hear criminal and civil appeals in the apex court.
Then chief justice Arifin Zakaria said this was to help improve the quality of judgments and decisions.
However, the previous policy appeared to have changed as the judiciary enforced strict health and safety standards in line with the government’s measures to contain the spread of Covid-19.
Today was the first day of open hearings after court premises nationwide were shut down for nearly two months due to the movement control order.
Today, an Ukrainian woman and an Indonesian man escaped the gallows for drug trafficking and murder respectively before the bench, chaired by Vernon Ong Lam Kiat.
In the first case, Lopatkina Klavdiia, 27, was acquitted of trafficking 1.5kg of cocaine at the Penang International Airport in Bayan Lepas five years ago.
Lopatkina, a trainee electrician and part-time waitress in Odessa, was found guilty by the High Court and the death penalty was affirmed by the Court of Appeal in 2018.
Her lawyer, N Sivananthan, said she was duped into delivering jewellery by a man identified as Igor, who was eventually caught by the Ukrainian authorities.
“She was acquitted as she did not have knowledge as the drugs were concealed in chocolate bars and candy.”
In the second case, construction worker Abdul Hali was spared the hangman’s noose for killing his employer, Mat Hosen.
Lawyer Gooi Soon Seng said the bench allowed the appeal as there was a doubt as to the identity of the person who committed the crime.
Joining Ong on the bench were Zabariah Mohd Yusof and Hasnah Mohammad.
Meanwhile, Sivananthan said he queried Ong why only a three-member bench was empanelled instead of the usual five but did not get a direct answer.
“I was asked if I was objecting, but I did not,” he told FMT.
Sivananthan said before the proceedings started, court officials told him that a panel of three would sit instead of five to practise social distancing.
The lawyer said Section 74 of the Courts of Judicature Act allowed for the assembly of a minimum of three judges or greater uneven numbers by the chief justice.
“However, there was no circular, nor was the Bar Council informed about this,” he said.
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