IT has been a long journey in Malaysia’s legal fights against the purported Sulu heirs’ who have brought their claims against Malaysia to various international jurisdictions since 2017.
Dec 11, 2023, will mark another milestone in the process. Spanish arbitrator Dr Gonzalo Stampa will face the Madrid Court over charges involving his controversial decision to order Malaysia to pay US$14.92bil (rm69.6bil) to self-proclaimed heirs of the defunct Sulu Sultanate.
But Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Law and Institutional Reforms) Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said says Putrajaya has a bigger two-pronged strategy against the “senseless claims” at play, including cutting off the Sulu claimants’ funding.
“Malaysia is at present undertaking a two-pronged strategy, constituting of a defensive strategy, to defend Malaysia in all jurisdictions the Sulu claimants are attempting to enforce the fraudulent US$15bil award, and an offensive strategy, to pursue the masterminds of this senseless claims, the financier of this claim – British global litigation fund Therium Capital Management Ltd – and of course Stampa.
“So this Dec 11 criminal proceeding against Stampa is an action independent of our defence of the enforcement of award in all the other jurisdictions which is an ongoing endeavour,” she says in an interview recently.
The purported Sulu heirs had sought legal action in multiple jurisdictions such as in Spain, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, in their efforts to seek compensation for land in Sabah, allegedly leased by their ancestors to a British trading company in 1878.
Azalina previously said that the Sulu group could theoretically continue to “forum shop” indefinitely by jumping to different jurisdictions until they receive a favourable outcome.
But this is dependent on whether the Sulu claimants continue to have enough funding to do so.
“Consensus on the ground is that the financier, Therium has been funding the Sulu claimants’ legal actions against Malaysia.
“We are identifying means to pursue Therium to hold them accountable, and God willing, to have the funds to Sulu cut off,” she says.
In early November this year, Malaysia scored decisive legal victories in the French Court that put an end to the Sulu group’s claims over Malaysian diplomatic assets in France.
At the time, Azalina said Malaysia is confident that the ultimate annulment of the purported final award by the Paris Court of Appeal is only a matter of time, and is making every effort to secure that result as quickly as possible.
The Hague Court of Appeal in June had also denied the claimants’ request to enforce a decision issued by a French court in 2022 ordering the Malaysian government to pay the US$14.9bil.
The Sulu group subsequently filed an appeal to the Dutch Supreme Court on Sept 27, 2023, which is still pending.
The Sulu group’s claims in Luxembourg also ended in January this year, when the Luxembourg Court decided in Malaysia’s favour.
Malaysia is now seeking to enact a state immunity law to help prevent something similar to the Sulu case from occurring again.
Azalina says the State Immunity Bill has already gone through its first reading in Parliament and is expected to be tabled for its second reading in the next parliamentary session early next year.
“It will put the present customary international law principle of sovereign immunity into a statutory footing, where immunity entitled by foreign states in Malaysia will be clarified.
“More importantly, it will emphasise that any immunity accorded to a foreign state has to be reciprocal, and may be restricted if Malaysia is not accorded with equivalent immunity in the foreign state concerned,” she explains.
Looking forward, Azalina says Putrajaya’s goal is to put a stop once and for all to this case in 2024 by fighting for the purported final award of US$14.9bil to be annulled.
“This will stop the Sulu claimants from further attempts to enforce the award in other countries and jurisdictions,” she says.