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Small enough to jail

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To draw a rather sad contrast to the movie, our system seems to suggest that, with the judiciary perceived to be beholden to the executive, no man is big enough not to jail, writes Mt Elvira.

With the sad news that Anwar has been hospitalised, the state of the judiciary comes to mind as I watch the documentary Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.

The Abacus Federal Reserve Savings was the only US bank to face criminal charges in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. It was one of the banks involved in the notorious sub-prime mortgage scandal that led to the financial meltdown in the United States in 2008 – but ithad only about 3,000 mortgages of which only nine were non-performing.

Briefly, in 2010, managers at the family-owned bank spot irregularities in the mortgage books and trace them to a single employee, Ken Yu, who turns out to be taking bribes. It is duly reported to the authorities but events take a nasty turn.

In 2012, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office indicts the bank and 19 of its employees, accusing Abacus of conspiracy. The key issue: does the bank and any of its managers know about the criminal activity?


Abacus tells us that if the answer is no, it means that the bank is being scapegoated. Instead of going after the big guys — Lehman brothers, Bear Stearns — the government bails the big guys out and the little guy, Abacus, gets blamed (to be made an example of). In the end, all the big banks are fined for their roles in the financial crisis, but Abacus is not offered that option.

It is a five-year US$10m battle to clear the bank’s name and its senior managers against the full weight of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. We see in this documentary an impartial judiciary and a jury system at its best. Evidence and cross-examination to prove perjury by the star prosecution witness, Ken Yu, who has a plea agreement with the prosecution, is presented in open court.

In the end, the truth and facts win the day in court because the judge concerned is only interested in what really happened. He is not beholden to any political master to rule in a particular way, and so his instructions to the jury at the end of the trial are clear and precise: the trial is not meant to make an example of Abacus. The jury takes six whole days before a decision is reached.

[Spoiler alert] In the end, it is a not guilty verdict on the more than 240 charges brought on the defendants. After the trial, Ken Yu’s plea bargain is revoked, and he is jailed for grand larceny.

The moral of the story is that in a judicial system where there is justice and fair play, you can have your day in court and come out with your head held high if you have been unfairly charged.

I can’t help but think of our most famous political prisoner and how our judicial system dealt wth him. There were suggestions before his trial that he should go into exile overseas but he chose to defend himself in our judicial system.

Critical questions by his defence team about how a sample of sperm supposedly extracted from the anus of the prosecution’s star witness could be in pristine condition more than 72 hours later appeared to be irrelevant. So too the apparently conflicting evidence by the star witness. And so our politician continues to rot in prison to this day.

To draw a rather sad contrast to the movie, our system seems to suggest that, with the judiciary perceived to be beholden to the executive, no man is big enough not to jail.

Mt Elvira is the pseudonym of a regular reader of Aliran.

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