KUALA LUMPUR - Claps and cheers broke out in the packed courtroom when former Malaysian transport minister Ling Liong Sik was acquitted of cheating the government in relation to the Port Klang Free Zone (PKFZ) land deal.
Hailing the decision by the Kuala Lumpur High Court last Friday, Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) president Chua Soi Lek said it should put to rest any misconception of Dr Ling's role in the project, The Star reported.
But opposition lawmakers and members of the legal fraternity accused the government of reneging on its promise to fight corruption, Malaysian media reported on Saturday.
Dr Ling, a former MCA president who was transport minister from 1986 to 2003, was charged in 2010 with misleading the Cabinet in a land deal for the free trade zone, a 405ha industrial and trading hub that suffered massive cost overruns. The project was initially estimated to cost less than RM2 billion (S$784 million) but the cost ballooned to RM4.6 billion in 2007.
The scandal erupted when the government approved a loan in 2007 to rescue the country's main port authority from debts exceeding US$1 billion (S$1.24 billion) involving the port project.
High Court judge Ahmadi Asnawi said it was evidence by Dr Mahathir Mohamad, prime minister for 22 years until 2003, which secured the acquittal.
In his 42-page written judgment, the judge said Dr Mahathir told the court that Finance Ministry officers were involved in every stage of the process of procuring the land and computing the cost of the project.
"It lends credence to the accused's contention that he played no part in the determination of the purchase price of the land with or without the interest element. He was only interested in getting the land fast," he said.
Former Attorney-General Abu Talib Othman asked why Dr Mahathir's statement was not recorded before Dr Ling was charged. "If Dr Mahathir's statement was recorded earlier, the Attorney-General would have had to think twice about whether to frame charges against Dr Ling," he told The Malaysian Insider.
Calling the acquittal shocking, Democratic Action Party (DAP) adviser Lim Kit Siang demanded updates on a "super task force" purportedly set up by Prime Minister Najib Razak on the scandal in 2009, saying that the panel had yet to divulge details of its findings. The DAP veteran said it was now more likely that no one would be held responsible for the ballooning cost of the project, Malay Mail online reported.
Parti Keadilan Rakyat lawmaker Tian Chua said Dr Ling's trial had been a "show" from the start to convince the public that the government was serious about its pledge to crack down on graft, a key grouse, ahead of polls, Agence France-Presse reported.
Prosecutors can appeal against the verdict.
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