A three-member Court of Appeal panel today substituted a six-month jail sentence imposed on lawyer Tommy Thomas for contempt of court with a RM10,000 fine, with one judge giving a dissenting opinion.
The decision was made after the court narrowly upheld, by a vote of two against one, Thomas' High Court conviction and subsequently dismissed his appeal against it
Dissenting judge Gopal Sri Ram said the appeal must be allowed as the conviction against the lawyer "destroys the freedom of thought and speech".
The other two panel members, justices Denis Ong and Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim, however ruled otherwise.
Thomas had appealed against both his conviction and sentencing by High Court judge RK Nathan, who in December 1998 imposed the six-month jail sentence for contempt.
Nathan found Thomas guilty of contempt for making a public statement in connection with the settlement of defamation suits filed by several large companies, a business tycoon and a prominent lawyer against him and legal firm Skrine & Co.
Businessman Vincent Tan, his companies and lawyer VK Lingam filed five different defamation suits against Thomas claiming damages of RM290 million for allegedly defaming them.
The suits were related to an article in a London-based trade magazine International Commercial Litigation in which Thomas is alleged to have said that certain plaintiffs and their lawyers enjoyed improper preferential treatment in the courts.
The article also questioned the independence of the Malaysian judiciary, especially in cases involving influential businesses.
The plaintiffs had also filed several other suits resulting from the same article including a RM280 million suit against United Nations' special rapporteur Param Cumaraswamy.
However, one suit has been struck out following an International Court of Justice ruling in 1999 that Param enjoyed immunity from legal proceedings in his capacity as an United Nations official. There are three more related suits against Param still pending in court.
Similar multi-million ringgit suits against Asian Wall Street Journal correspondent Raphael Pura are still pending for hearing at the Kuala Lumpur High Court.
In his High Court decision, Nathan found the statement by Thomas to have been an insult to the court and a repudiation of a settlement agreement in a libel case.
In the statement, Thomas said he had not been consulted adequately by his insurers about the decision to settle and that the settlement was insisted upon by the insurer despite his objections.
Thomas immediately retracted the statement, expressed regret, and offered an apology to the court but Nathan sentenced him to six months' imprisonment for contempt of court.
In November 1998, the Court of Appeal having heard the appeal, reserved judgment on the case.
The court today also granted stay of execution to Thomas pending his appeal to the Federal Court. He has 30 days to seek the leave of the Federal Court to appeal against today's decisions.