Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Apex court orders Felda to pay RM11 mil to settlers

Hafiz Yatim
Jan 19, 10
The Federal Court has refused to grant leave (permission) for the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) to appeal, and ordered it to pay RM11 million for cheating 354 settlers over seven years.

Some 600 people, including family members of the Felda Kemahang 3 settlers from Tanah Merah, Kelantan, packed the Palace of Justice in Putrajaya today. They greeted the news with joy.

The three-member panel led by Chief Justice Zaki Azmi, was unanimous in refusing to grant leave for the appeal.

"The court is satisfied that there is no part of law for the matter to be reviewed by this court. We uphold the findings of the High Court and the Court of Appeal," Zaki said in his oral judgment.

Other members of the panel were Justices Gopal Sri Ram and Zulkefli Ahmad Makinuddin.

The 354 settlers are each expected to get between RM25,000 and RM30,000. They were represented by a team of lawyers led by Wan Rohimi Wan Daud and Yusfarizal Yusoff. Felda was represented by Cecil Abraham and Sunil Abraham.

The settlers named Felda, its area manager Ibrahim Ismail (since deceased) and Felda Palm Industries Sdn Bhd as defendants.

On Jan 13, 2008, Kota Bharu High Court judge Mohd Azman Husin had ordered Felda to pay RM7.8 million plus interest after counsel representing Felda and Felda Palm Industries failed to turn up for the hearing.

On June 26 last year, the appellate court delivered a two-to-one verdict in favour of the settlers. Federal Court judge James Foong and Court of Appeal judge Abdull Hamid Embong ruled in their favour, while Justice Abdul Malik Ishak dissented.

The settlers, led by Awang Soh Mamat, filed the suit on Sept 22, 2002, claiming that they were cheated of payment for oil palm fruit from 1996-2002.

Othman Hamat said the settlers are thankful for the apex court's decision, as their seven-year struggle to seek justice has been brought to a close.

“We have faced a lot of adversity in facing the authorities. The settlers suspected something amiss when we realised the manager and Felda had downgraded our crop to Grade C-.

“We knew the quality of our crop was at par with that of other Felda programmes. It has been a long struggle, but finally justice has been upheld. We hope to get compensation within a month,” Othman said, when contacted today.

He said some of the settlers have died and that the money will go to family members.

'Minister threatened settlers'

During the proceedings, the settlers had alleged they were threatened with eviction from the programme unless they withdrew their suit against Felda.

Court documents and testimonies from the settlers revealed the role of former agriculture and agro-based industries minister Mustapa Mohamed, who had allegedly threatened the settlers to withdraw their lawsuit. He is currently international trade and industry minister.

While the Court of Appeal in its judgment alluded to the minister's alleged role, it reserved its ire for Felda.

Justice Foong said Felda, as a statutory body set up to assist settlers in raising their standard of living, had instead cheated them.

"In a position of authority over the plaintiffs in the allotment of land in the said scheme, Felda had after the suit was filed, threatened to evict the plaintiffs from the scheme for pursuing the action,” he said.

"Such intimidation weighs against Felda. The third defendant (Felda Palm Industries Sdn Bhd) is no better since they are associated with or is part of Felda.

Given the circumstances and having taken into account all other relevant factors into consideration, we are of the view that the trial judge's award of this amount is justified.”

Wan Rohimi said justice has been a long time coming, as this is “not an isolated case involving Felda or its manager cheating settlers”.

“Since filing the action, we found many other cases. We have also acted for 400 settlers in Felda Maokil in Labis, Johor," he added.

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