KUALA LUMPUR: Attorney-General (AG) Tommy Thomas has defended the appointment of Sitpah Selvaratnam, a senior shipping and maritime lawyer at his former law firm, to handle the government’s claim on super yacht Equanimity, which was allegedly bought using money said to have been siphoned from 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).
Thomas said Selvaratnam, who is providing her service for free to the government, is “the obvious choice” to advise him and the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) in the case due to her breadth of experience and specialty in shipping laws, after having been involved in numerous ship and vessel arrets in Malaysian courts, as well as opposing such arrests, in over 25 years of specialised practice.
“When I was informed about two weeks ago that there was a real possibility the yacht Equanimity would be released by Indonesia to Malaysia, research had to be done quickly to establish Malaysia’s jurisdiction over the yacht when it arrived in our waters. The most effective basis of invoking the court’s jurisdiction is Admiralty law or the law of shipping. A consultant in my former firm, Ms Sitpah Selvaratnam, is the acknowledged leader of the Admiralty Bar with regard to litigation matters,” he said in a statement yesterday.
Selvaratnam has also been chairperson of the Shipping and Admiralty Law Committee of the Bar Council for many years and is the founding president of the International Malaysian Society of Maritime Law, said Thomas.
Because the transactions involved in the case were intricate and the corporate deals carried out by Low Taek Jho (Jho Low) and his advisers were layered to hide the true source of funds used to purchase the yacht, “drafting the legal papers required skill and expertise in shipping law and corporate law”, he added.
Likewise, serving the warrant of arrest with the sheriff on the yacht requires the experience and expertise of lawyers who have done admiralty arrests, he said.
The AGC, however, does not have a specialist shipping unit to handle such litigation matters, especially pertaining to the legal arrests of ships and vessels.
“Accordingly, I decided to turn to the Bar, and chose three of Malaysia’s leading shipping lawyers, Ms Selvaratnam, Mr Jeremy Joseph and Mr Ong Chee Kwan, to represent the claimants (the Malaysian government, 1MDB and two of the latter’s subsidiaries), along with Ms Alice Loke, Senior Federal Counsel. The solicitors on record are Mr Joseph’s firm, Joseph & Partners. Because this is a complex litigation, where the stakes are as high as RM1 billion, the law firm of Joseph & Partners, Mr Joseph and Mr Ong will be paid at normal commercial rates. Ms Selvaratnam, on the other hand, will not be paid any fees. Her services are rendered to us without any charge to the taxpayers,” Thomas said.
He also revealed that both Selvaratnam and Joseph were approached by foreign parties just last week to act for them in this matter, but they both declined.
“The decision to appoint Ms Selvaratnam was mine, and mine alone, because I have trust and confidence in her ability and integrity,” he added.
‘No conflict of interest because we’re on the same side’
On Wednesday, Umno youth politician Nik Saiful Adli Burhan questioned the appointment of Selvaratnam from Thomas’s former law firm to represent 1MDB to claim Equanimity, saying this could lead to a conflict of interest.
To this, Thomas said the legal proceedings are brought for the benefit of Malaysia and the country deserves the best shipping lawyers. “There is no question of conflict of interest because we are all on the same side. It is neither right nor sensible for Malaysia to be deprived of the services of Ms Selvaratnam merely because I was at the firm where she has been a consultant for the past eight years,” Thomas said.
“The real test of Ms Selvaratnam’s experience and expertise would come into play, if and when, Jho Low or any other party applies to set aside the warrant of arrest. The arguments would then be vigorously put forward by all sides when the court hears the matter on its merits, and it is critical that Malaysia has the best barristers. Litigation is dynamic. Unpredictable events occur in court, and Malaysia’s case must be in safe hands,” he added.
1MDB laid claim to Equanimity when it docked at Pulau Indah, Selangor on Tuesday. Reportedly worth about RM1 billion, the super yacht is among assets, including real estate, jewellery and a Picasso painting, that the US Department of Justice said were bought with 1MDB’s stolen funds.