KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 29 — A lawyer representing ex-airman N. Tharmendran, accused of stealing two F5-E jet engines, has been served a letter by the air force advising him that he risks opening himself up to criminal charges for allegedly aiding a deserter.
N. Surendran of Lawyers for Liberty was today served at his office with a letter from the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) claiming Tharmendran was still on active duty until May 28 next year.
The letter, signed by Lieutenant-Colonel Mohd Razif Ramli on behalf of the air force chief, demanded that Surendran advise Tharmendran to hand himself in to armed forces personnel within seven days or face potential criminal proceedings under Section 135 and 136 of the Penal Code.
“Please take notice, we hereby demand that you advice Sgt U. Tharmendran a/l Nagarajah to hand himself in… to any Team/UniU Formation ATM (Malaysian Armed Forces) within seven days of this letter’s date,” the letter said.
“Your failure to do so will expose you to offences under Section 135 and/or 136 of the Penal Code, which [we] believe you are more knowledgeable about.”
The punishment for abetting or harbouring a deserter under either section is a two-year prison sentence or a fine or both.
Lawyers for Liberty said in a press statement that the letter amounted to “serious and unprecedented interference” with the duties of a lawyer defending a client in a criminal matter.
“Members of the Malaysian Bar do not take instructions from the armed forces as to what to advise their clients. This unlawful threat and demand against Surendran must be immediately withdrawn, and the Minister of Defence must answer for the actions of the air force chief to the public and the Bar,” the statement said.
Lawyers for Liberty further claimed that the air force’s own documents showed that Tharmendran’s service ended on May 28, and that he has not been paid wages since June.
When contacted, Surendran told The Malaysian Insider that the letter was a “naked threat” aimed at preventing him for doing his best to help his client.
“No lawyer can be said to be abetting a person if he is merely rendering legal advice and representing him in court. Whatever the dispute is, they cannot threaten me with criminal proceedings because I’m just doing my job,” the human rights lawyer said.
“I believe the Bar Council will view it very seriously because I can’t remember any time recently where they have issued such a blatant and naked threat to a lawyer.”
Surendran said he would pursue legal action if RMAF does not withdraw the letter immediately, in addition to demanding an explanation from the Defence Minister how such a letter could be issued and what the intention behind it was.
He added the letter amounted to contempt of both the Petaling Jaya Sessions Court and the Shah Alam High Court, where Tharmendran’s case is being heard.
“They’re… perhaps very angry that we’ve highlighted the fact that Tharmendran was abused by air force personnel,” he said.
Tharmendran previously claimed to have been tortured by two “majors” who sought to force a confession that he had stolen the jet engines.
He further alleged that about 30 to 40 others had been similarly tortured as he could hear their screams during his confinement at the air force base.
Tharmendran had said that he was made to wear a crash helmet and was hit with a cricket bat and a golf club three to four times a day.
He was also allegedly dragged, stripped down to his underwear, and thrown into a freezing cold room and made to admit, repeatedly, that he was guilty.
Tharmendran and company director K. Rajandran Prasad were jointly charged in the Petaling Jaya Sessions Court on January 6 in connection with the theft of the missing F5-E jet engines.
Tharmendran is accused of stealing the engines in December 2007 at the Subang RMAF air base.
He was also charged with conspiring in the theft with senior airman Mohamad Shukri Mohamad Yusop at the material processing shed at the Sungai Besi RMAF base.
He was arrested on September 1 last year, and if convicted faces up to 10 years’ jail and a fine.
Rajandran is accused of disposing of the engines on April 30, 2008.
The theft was a major embarrassment to the government, following reports later that the country’s first submarine — KD Tunku Abdul Rahman — could not dive in tropical waters.
The prime minister had vowed that there would be no cover-up in the high-profile case which occurred during his tenure as defence minister while the current minister, Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, claimed that it was an inside job.