Azalina: Spanish Courts upholds annulment of Gonzalo Stampa arbitrator for group claiming to be Sulu Sultan's descendants

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 2 — The Spanish Constitutional Court has upheld the annulment of Gonzalo Stampa the arbitrator for the group of individuals claiming to be the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Law and Institutional Reform) Datuk Seri Azalina Othman said she received official confirmation that the appeal filed by the claimants had been rejected therefore reaffirming Malaysia’s stance not to recognise the claims.

“The Spanish Constitutional Court has just rejected the extraordinary constitutional appeal (recurso de amparo) filed by a group of individuals styling themselves as the “heirs” of the Sultan of Sulu (“Claimants”) against the annulment of Mr Stampa’s appointment as arbitrator in the so-called Sulu dispute.

“The government has just received official confirmation that the constitutional appeal filed by the Claimants has been rejected and that, as a result, the annulment of Stampa’s appointment (which was already final and binding) has also been confirmed by the Spanish Constitutional Court. The Spanish Constitutional Court, therefore, reaffirms Malaysia’s position,” she said in a statement.

The group made claims in the courts in France in March last year that Malaysia must pay the descendants US$14.9 billion (RM63.26 billion).

The dispute arose after “heirs” and “successors-in-interest” to Sultan Jamalul Kiram II initiated a claim against the government of Malaysia through an international arbitration proceeding in Madrid, Spain.

The Sulu claimants have been accused of forum shopping or choosing a court that would be most favourable to them, initially seeking arbitration in the UK only to be turned down, and starting the arbitration in 2019 with Spain-appointed arbitrator Stampa.

In explaining today’s decision, Azalina said on June 29, 2021, the High Court of Justice of Madrid (HJCM) issued a decision that annulled the unlawful judicial appointment of Stampa to act as an arbitrator (“Annulment Decision”).

“The HCJM was the Spanish court that had initially appointed Stampa in 2019 (without hearing Malaysia following invalid service). As a result of this decision, the HJCM retroactively invalidated Stampa’s appointment and nullified all his actions as a purported arbitrator, including the alleged “preliminary award” he had rendered in Madrid,” she said.

Ignoring the Spanish and French courts’ decisions which meant the arbitration was illegitimate, Stampa on February 28, 2022, gave his arbitration decision — also known as the “final award” — to order Malaysia to pay US$14.92 billion to the eight Sulu claimants.

These claims have not been recognised by Malaysia and the French courts have stayed the enforcement of the purported final award rendered by Stampa in France, pending the judicial outcome of Malaysia’s action to set it aside on the basis that enforcement may likely threaten Malaysia’s sovereignty over the territory of Sabah.

“The Spanish courts have now further confirmed the annulment of Stampa’s unlawful appointment as an arbitrator, finding that he never had any legal authority to act in that capacity nor to issue any awards and that therefore they are null and void.

“This recent decision of the Spanish Constitutional Court vindicates the government’s policy to vigorously defend Malaysia in every court and forum, exercising all its powers, rights and resources to ensure that Malaysia’s interests, sovereign immunity and sovereignty are protected at all times,” she added.

As of July 2022, the eight purported Sulu claimants comprise three retirees (aged 68, 68, 74), three unemployed persons (aged 51, 65, 70), one school administrator (aged 54) and one businessman (aged 70).

According to Stampa’s written award, the Sulu claimants had spent over US$3.5 million on the fees and costs for their lawyers in UK, Spain and Philippines and fees for experts; and had also put up US$3.35 million as deposits for both themselves and Malaysia for arbitration fees and costs.

This would come up to a total US$6,852,394.24 or over US$6.8 million, but a US$998,000 sum from the US$3.35 million deposit was later refunded to the Sulu claimants.