Gatco settlers lose final battle over Bahau land

PUTRAJAYA: A total of 140 former Kampung Gatco settlers have lost their final battle at the Federal Court here to get their land in Bahau, Negri Sembilan.

This follows the Federal Court’s refusal today to hear the merit of their complaint.

The court said the legal questions posed did not meet the requirement of Section 96 of the Courts of Judicature Act 1964.

This means the questions framed were not raised for the first time and not "of public importance".

The three-member bench was chaired by Chief Justice Raus Sharif. The other judges were Justices Balia Yusof Wahi and Aziah Ali.

The land was leased in 1977 by the Negeri Sembilan State Economic Development Corporation (SEDC) to Gatco.

The land was then reportedly converted by the National Union of Plantation Workers (NUPW), which owned Gatco, into a land scheme for members to plant sugar cane.

The villagers paid RM7,600 each as deposit before working on the land. However, the scheme failed and Gatco was forced to take loans from two finance companies.

In Nov 1996, Gatco was wound up on a petition presented by one M. Karupanan Trading for an alleged debt of RM135,000, and in May 2004, interested parties were invited to make a bid to buy the land.

Acting on the invitation, 214 settlers (none of the plaintiffs), offered to purchase the 3.6ha land at RM16mil from the first defendant who rejected the offer (the property is estimated to be worth RM500 million now).

The appointed liquidators sold the land in 2006 to Thamarai Holdings Sdn Bhd.

In their statement of claim filed on Dec 18, 2012, the 140 plaintiffs named Gatco's liquidators (K. Jayapalasingam and Yong Yoon Shing) as the first defendant and Thamarai as the second defendant.

They had sought a declaration that the first and second defendants were trustees of the said land for the plaintiffs.

They sought an order to set aside the sale of the land from the liquidators to Thamarai and compensation for breach of trust.

The lawsuit was struck out by the High Court. However, the Court of Appeal, reversed the decision in 2014, and ordered the lawsuit to be tried.

Last October, the High Court ruled in favour of the settlers on eight legal questions while another two legal questions were in favour of the liquidators and the company.

On July 18, 2017, 28 settlers were arrested by police for attempting to stop Thamarai from cutting down rubber trees in their village.

They had also set up a blockade preventing the company from entering their village. The 28 settlers were freed by the High Court on July 20.

On July 24, another 30 settlers were arrested by police for forming a human blockade to prevent lorries from transporting logs from the village.

They were released the same day.

The issue also gained prominence when the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) made several arrests, including of two brothers with “Datuk” titles.

In August 2017, the settlers had lodged a report with MACC claiming possible corruption in the land sale involving Thamarai and the two liquidators.

MACC chief commissioner Dzulkifli Ahmad said then it would set up a special committee to investigate complaints about the settlers’ claims in the land dispute.

Today (April 16), in a unanimous decision, the Federal Court dismissed the settlers' leave to appeal against the Court of Appeal's decision delivered two years ago.

Justice Md Raus said that a case could be dismissed after a full trial or without a trial. He added that the High Court judge was entitled to make a summary ruling without hearing the parties.

He added that the issue had been decided and the appellant had no right over the land.

He ordered the settlers to pay RM10,000 in costs to Gatco's liquidators Jayapalasingam and Yong and another RM10,000 to Thamarai.

The settlers' lawyer R. Kengadharan told reporters later that he has received instructions to file the suit afresh.

Kampung Gatco settlers