PUTRAJAYA: The Court of Appeal ordered former Penang chief minister Lim Guan Eng to pay RM250,000 in general damages to former Baling MP Datuk Seri Abdul Azeez Abdul Rahim for defamation in connection with the Penang undersea tunnel project.
A three-member panel comprising Justices Azizah Nawawi, Mariana Yahya and Azimah Omar, in allowing Abdul Azeez's appeal, also ordered Lim, as the respondent, to pay RM70,000 in costs to Abdul Azeez.
Justice Azimah, when reading out the decision, said the lower court had erred in dismissing Abdul Azeez’s suit against Lim and allowing Lim's defence of justification, fair comment and qualified privilege over his statement relating to Abdul Azeez.
Abdul Azeez was appealing against the Penang High Court's decision on Dec 11, 2020 in dismissing his defamation suit against Lim.
In March 2018, Abdul Azeez sued Lim, claiming that he had issued defamatory statements during a press conference at the Penang Chief Minister's Office on Feb 28, 2018, and during a Chinese New Year open house hosted by the Penang Development Corporation on the same day, linking Abdul Azeez to a payment of RM3mil as consultation fees from the developer of the undersea tunnel project.
Justice Azimah said the respondent did not take any step of his own to verify the information and he never sought any comment and response from the appellant for verification.
She further said the timing of Lim’s issuance of the defamatory statement was too conveniently close to the 14th General Election (GE14) in 2018.
"The respondent has acted for the benefit of his own political and personal agenda and interests," she added.
Justice Azimah also said that the respondent's statement went beyond seeking for the authorities to investigate the issue of alleged wrongdoing over the undersea tunnel project, and imputed that the appellant was involved in the matter.
"There is no evidence of the respondent reaching out to the appellant, there was no verification exercise. There was hastiness in the respondent publishing the defamatory statement," she said, adding that Lim did not issue the statement in good faith but made it for political interest.
According to the judge, the developer Consortium Zenith Construction Sdn Bhd had sent a notice of demand (NOD) to Abdul Azeez in February 2018 to recover the monies but retracted its NOD within a week, following Abdul Azeez's response to the company.
Justice Azimah said the respondent was not a "common lay person" but a "renowned and seasoned veteran" politician who was not a stranger to the litigation process.
"Thus, it should have been clear to him that a mere NOD is not evidence of guilt,” she said, adding that there were no attempts by the respondent to verify the contents of the NOD.
Justice Azimah also said the court found that the respondent was not entitled to rely on the defence of justification and not entitled to rely on fair comment or qualified privilege.
During today's proceedings conducted via Zoom, Abdul Azeez was represented by lawyer Porres Royan and Craign Ho while Lim was represented by counsel Datuk N. Mureli and Felix Lim. - Bernama