Swiss Bank Powers to Probe Taib Holdings

Just a month after the voters of the Malaysian state of Sarawak returned Abdul Taib Mahmud to office, Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Ray said Thursday that she asking Swiss financial authorities to investigate the chief minister’s assets held in Swiss banks.

In a letter to the Swiss-based Bruno Manser Fund, Calmy-Ray indicated that if the investigation finds evidence of corruption from timber sales, Taib’s Swiss assets could be frozen. The letter was made public by The Sarawak Report, a Sarawak-based website that has published detailed descriptions of Taib’s operations in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. The Bruno Manser Fund is named for a Swiss national who disappeared in Sarawak in the 1980s while campaigning for the rights of the indigenous the Penan tribe.

In the 30 years of Taib’s reign as chief minister, timber companies have cut more than 90 percent of the tropical rainforest, leaving forest-dwellers like the Penan deprived of their means of subsistence and starving, critics allege. The award of timber concessions has made Taib a billionaire, they charge.

In a separate letter made public by the Bruno Manser Foundation, the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority, which governs money-laundering, agreed to investigate Taib’s holdings in Swiss banks.

The Bruno Manser Fund alleged that Taib is believed to have invested heavily in the Swiss banking system and that Elia Geneid, a Swiss national who married into the Taib family, has profited from the use of lands held by native Sarawakian tribes. In February 2010, the Fund alleged there are 49 companies connected to Taib in eight countries which are thought to be worth hundreds of millions, if not billions of US dollars. Transparency International Malaysia and other NGOs have lodged reports against Taib through the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.

“Taib is believed to have invested a great deal in the once secretive Swiss banks over past decades, although, following recent reforms, he has more recently focused his attention on Monaco which remains famously lax on the matter of money-laundering,” the Sarawak Report said.

The question that arises immediately is who the Swiss authorities would return the funds to if they were discovered to be gained from the illegal sale of timber or other government assets. The Taib-led Barisan Nasional coalition was returned to office with 54.5 percent of the votes but holds 55 of the state assembly’s 71 seats. If the Swiss were to indeed freeze Taib’s Swiss-based assets, returning them to the Malaysian government would presumably put them back into his hands.

Taib has promised to step down after the election, but so far has not done so and there is considerable reason to believe he has no intention to do so. The chief minister is considered a close ally and fundraiser for Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak. In the recent election, the Barisan Nasional, the national ruling coalition in Kuala Lumpur, pulled out all the stops to aid in the reelection campaign, cris-crossing the state to campaign along with other Barisan stalwarts to aid the chief minister’s reelection campaign.

In addition to the Bruno Manser Fund, the Sarawak report, in a long series of reports prior to the election, showed, for instance, that family members and corporations connected to Taib have properties in Canada worth in excess of US$100 million. Taib’s children are the shareholders and directors of numerous companies controlling residential and commercial buildings in Australia, Britain and the United States worth additional hundreds of millions of dollars.

Sakti International Corp. in the United States manages properties totaling an estimated US$80 million including the Abraham Lincoln Building, which houses the FBI’s offices in Seattle, Washington. Records made public by the Sarawak Report showed that a family dwelling in Seattle was purchased for US$1 from a company to which the Sarawak government granted a timber concession.

The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission so far has ignored all requests from the Sarawak Report and other NGOs to investigate the Taib family’s assets and how they were acquired.