By: John Berthelsen

In a stunning example of the Malaysian government’s ability to turn justice on its head, one of the opposition’s brightest political stars is being threatened with prison for exposing one of the government’s most embarrassing scandals.

Rafizi Ramli, the 41-year-old vice president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, headed by the also-jailed Anwar Ibrahim, was sentenced last week to 30 months in prison for violating the Banking and Financial Institutions Act for exposing details relating to what became known as Cowgate, in which a top United Malays National Organization official and her family were accused in 2012 of misusing RM250 million (US$63.5 million at current exchange rates) from a project to supply religiously-approved, or halal beef for Malaysia’s Muslims.

The use of the courts to neuter a major opposition figure is nothing new, starting with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who was sentenced to five years in prison in January 2016 and is due to be freed early on June 6. Rafizi himself was convicted last November of violating the Official Secrets Act for disclosing details pertaining to the US$3.5 billion 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal, which the US Justice Department has called the biggest kleptocracy scandal in US history. Rafizi is free on appeal. In August 2016, the Vice President of Parti Amanah Negara Youth, Mohd Fakhrulrazi Mohd Mokhtar, was sentenced to eight months in prison for sedition for calling for the release of jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

In April 2017, activist Haris Ibrahim went to prison for eight months on a sedition charge for challenging the results of the 2013 general election.  Graphic artist Fahmi Reza faces a sedition charge for posting an online image of Najib in clown make-up. The irrepressible cartoonist Zulkiflee SM Anwar Ulhaque, better known as Zunar, faces up to 43 years in prison for criticizing the government. They are among a long list of others facing court action.

Rafizi and Johari Mohamad, a clerk at Public Bank Bhd, have appealed their sentence in Sessions Court, allegedly for leaking details from the accounts of National Feedlot Corporation, which was established by the government to transport 60,000 cattle from Australia to Malaysia to be fattened according to Islamic standards and slaughtered.

While Cowgate has been dwarfed by a raft of other scandals including 1MDB, which has ensnared Prime Minister Najib himself and members of his family in a substantial US Justice Department kleptocracy probe, Cowgate was easy to understand out in the kampungs by UMNO’s rural Malay constituents. As Rafizi’s revelations demonstrated, the family of Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, Malaysia’s minister for women, family and community development, was accused of diverting millions into premium land, condominium properties in the upscale Bangsar district of Kuala Lumpur, spending hundreds of thousands of ringgit for overseas travel and entertainment, and buying a Mercedes-Benz sedan for Shahrizat.

The feedlot scandal was first uncovered in 2011 in a report by Malaysia’s Auditor General. The affair began with allegations that Shahrizat’s family was given the concession through a company called Agroscience Industries Sdn Bhd, and the RM250 million soft loan along with another RM13 million grant to operate the feedlot business although none of the family had ever had any connection with livestock production or the management of a major business before.

The company never managed to slaughter 10 percent of the projected total and scaled back its target to 8,000 head but at that time wasn’t able to meet that target either. The company lost millions of dollars of government funds every year spending significant sums on things that had nothing to do with raising beef. 

Eventually Najib was forced to push Shahrizat out of the government.  But later he reinstated her as minister out of a concern that she was extremely valuable for coordinating the women’s vote. 

The jail sentence for Rafizi and Johari is a severe handicap to the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition and plays into a long string of other maneuvers by Najib to hamstring his opponents and critics in advance of national elections, which must be held before Aug. 24 but which are likely to be held earlier.  The Federal Constitution contains language barring an elected representative from Parliament if he is jailed for at least a year or fined a minimum of RM2,000. Rafizi in addition to being party vice president and a close Anwar ally, is the co-founder of a whistle-blower organization, National Oversight and Whistleblowers. As such, he and his allies have exposed a long list of government shortcomings and outrages.

Najib is expected to call national elections sometime in the next few days or weeks with Anwar, the country’s most charismatic politician, expected to be freed two years early, from charges that human rights organizations across the globe have condemned as trumped up to remove him from politics.

The election commission says it’s too early to say whether Rafizi will be eligible to run in the election. He remains a member of parliament. 

The common wisdom is that UMNO goes into the national election comfortably ahead, with the opposition in disarray and split, with Parti Islam se-Malaysia, the rural-based fundamentalist Malay party, possibly lining up with the government, which would likely doom the opposition.  In addition, opposition leaders say the constituencies have been gerrymandered even more than they were in the 2013 general election, in which the opposition won the popular vote but ended up with only 71 of the 222 parliamentary seats.

However, the opposition is now a more potent campaign headed by the 92-year-old former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who since 2013 has been Najib’s sworn enemy. Mahathir has made common cause with the jailed Anwar  — whom he once jailed himself on sexual perversion charges that are regarded as trumped up. That alliance has strengthened the opposition and amputated the Barisan Nasional’s contention that the opposition is run by the Chinese rather than Malays, a common bugaboo to frighten the denizens of the kampungs into staying with UMNO.

Lim Kit Siang, the Democratic Action Party’s parliamentary leader, demanded that Rafizi remain freed for “doing a national service for exposing the RM250 million National Feedlot Corporation scandal.”

Never before in Malaysian history, Lim said, “have so many people’s representatives whether Members of Parliament or State Assembly members been harassed and hounded, including being selectively prosecuted in the courts under the variety of repressive and undemocratic laws to take away their liberties as well as to remove them from the legislative chambers in the land.”