Malaysia Vainly Seeks to Keep Lid on Scandal
The lengths Malaysian authorities are willing to go in the effort to keep a lid on continuing financial scandals involving Najib Razak and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, has taken a new turn with a threat to arrest a prominent lawyer for assisting a US businessman in making a sworn statement on his brother’s reported involvement into the stalled probe.
Police are demanding that Americk Sidhu, who assisted in writing the sworn statement by Atlanta-based businessman Charles Morais of his murdered brother’s reported involvement in the stalled Najib investigation, come in for questioning. Khalid Abu Bakar, Malaysia’s Inspector-General of Police, told local media on Nov. 30 that “we are giving Americk two days to step forward and have his statement recorded.”
On Nov. 26, Morais read a sworn statement to a press conference in Kuala Lumpur that his brother Anthony Kevin Morais, a Malaysian deputy prosecutor whose body was found in a cement-filled oil drum that had been dumped in a river, had said he was assisting in the investigation of Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, before he disappeared. Morais said he had also received a USB drive from his dead brother, to be kept for safekeeping. But he gave no details about what was on the USB drive. Almost immediately after holding the press conference, Charles Morais left the country to go back to the US.
The investigation into allegations of an unexplained US$681 million infusion into Najib’s bank accounts, and the money’s subsequent disappearance, plus irregularities involving the ill-starred 1Malaysia Development Bhd. state-backed investment fund, have metamorphosed into one of Asia’s biggest potential scandals.
Minutely detailed stories of the financial transactions have appeared in the Sarawak Report, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Asia Sentinel. They have had no apparent effect on his viability as prime minister, with all stories met with denials or charges that the publications were biased despite the fact that Najib and his grasping wife are beginning to attain the legendary status of such outsized kleptomaniacs as the late Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and Suharto in Indonesia.
To a semi-public request by US President Barack Obama that Najib free opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who was imprisoned on what are widely considered trumped up charges, Najib replied only that Malaysia must follow the law. Anwar has been labeled a prisoner of conscience by a United Nations committee, which has also demanded that he be freed.
Beyond that, however, multiple allegations involving Najib run back for a more than a decade to the purchases when he was defense minister of a cornucopia of military gear including Russian jets, helicopters, patrol boats and submarines, all of which involved allegations of overpayment of substantial amounts of money that were kicked back to the United Malays National Organization or went into top cadres’ own pockets.
The biggest – until the onset of the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd investment fund – involved the purchase of French submarines and kickbacks of €114 million to UMNO and the murder of a 28-year-old Mongolian national, Altantuya Shaariibuu, who may have known too much about that scandal. If anything they are an illustration of the lengths to which the leaders of UMNO, a corruption-ridden and sclerotic party that has held power in Malaysia since it became a country, are willing to go to stay in power.
So far, Najib has ridden out the both the French controversy, despite the fact that French authorities developed voluminous evidence of the scandal and made it public, and the current one by threatening scores of critics with sedition and other charges.
He has fired critical officials including his own deputy prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, and Abdul Gani Patail, the attorney general, among others. He retains the backing of the 192 cadres of the United Malays National Organization whose support is crucial by pouring vast amounts of money into bribes or make-work jobs to maintain their loyalty. On Dec. 8-10, that loyalty is expected to be tested at the UMNO annual general meeting, where scores of lower-ranking division chiefs, especially from Johor – Muhyiddin’s home state – have demanded answers over the twin scandals. Longtime political analysts in Malaysia believe there will be no answers at the AGM and that Najib is prepared to ride out the storm until at least 2018, when the next general election is expected.
Americk has been an increasing thorn in the side of Malaysian authorities since 2008, when he helped to write a sworn declaration for a private detective named Perumal Balasubramaniam that raised spectacular allegations that Najib had had an affair with Altantuya, who was murdered in 2006 by two of Najib’s bodyguards when Najib was defense minister and involved in the corruption-riddled purchase of two submarines from the subsidiary of France’s biggest defense company DCN.
Sidhu later played a key role in Balasubramaniam’s subsequent declarations that one of Najib’s brothers and an Indian businessman had collaborated in paying him hundreds of thousands of Malaysian ringgit to rescind his allegations, accompanied with a threat to leave the country hurriedly. Bala, as he was known, returned to Malaysia to deliver a volley of charges involving Najib’s supposed dalliance with Altantuya and other allegations of corruption, only to die suddenly of a heart attack in 2013.
Charles Morais delivered his sworn statement of his brother’s involvement in the now-stalled investigation and almost immediately left the country to go back to Atlanta, Ga., in the US, where he is involved in the hotel business. The police chief told local media the police want to know “among other questions, why did Charles select this lawyer to represent him...and as a lawyer, Americk should know his client's whereabouts."
To the police chief’s public remark that it wasn’t the first time an Americk client had disappeared after making a sworn statement, the defiant lawyer replied that “at least this time, my client had the choice of ‘disappearing’ voluntarily.”
Americk “has a bad reputation when it comes to statutory declarations,” the police chief said, impelling a defiant Americk to issue a public statement that the official’s remarks were “clearly defamatory of me and I am in consultation with my lawyers on my legal options in this respect.”
Eric Paulson, the executive director of Lawyers for Liberty – who himself has been threatened with sedition charges for criticizing the Malaysian Islamic Development Department for spreading extremism -- called on the police to rescind their intention to question Americk over Morais’s statement, saying such an act amounted to harassment of a lawyer who was merely performing his duties in acting for his client.
"Needless to say, Americk, like any other lawyer, must be allowed to carry out his work freely and without improper interference, Paulson said in a prepared statement. "We further call upon the police to recognize and respect the vital function played by lawyers in upholding the rule of law and constitutional rights, including the right to legal representation as guaranteed by Article 5 of the Federal Constitution."
Americk is expected to be questioned by the police tomorrow, according to authorities in Kuala Lumpur. Paulsen, in his statement, said the move to investigate lawyers representing clients is a serious assault on the independence of the Bar and the fundamental principle of lawyer-client privilege, upon which all lawyers are bound.
"It is basic that all communications and consultations between lawyers and their clients within their professional relationship are confidential and privileged,” he said. "Further, lawyers shall not be identified with their clients or their client's causes as a result of discharging their functions.”