March 27, 2016

Corruption Scandal: Malaysian PM Given “Clean Chit”

Yohannan Chemarapally

MALAYSIA'S attorney general, Mohamed Apandi, a handpicked appointee of the prime minister, Najib Razak, surprised few Malaysians when he announced in the last week of January that he is closing the corruption inquiry into the transfer of hundreds of million dollars into the personal bank accounts of his boss. Apandi solemnly announced in the last week of January that “no laws were broken” by the prime minister and that he had ordered the country's anti-corruption bureau to close the investigations into the sources of the funds that the Malaysian prime minister received. The attorney general claimed that out of the more than $700 million found in the prime minister's personal accounts, $681 million was a “personal donation” from the Saudi royal family. “I am satisfied that there was no evidence to show that the donation was a form of gratification given corruptly”, a statement from the attorney general's office said. The statement also claimed that the prime minister had returned part of the money – $620 million – back to the Saudi royal family. The attorney general did not bother to explain where the rest of the money “donated” by the Saudi royal family was spent or to whom the money was returned. The statement from the attorney general also seemed to suggest that Prime Minister Najib was unaware of the fact that another $10 million was transferred into his account by the country's debt ridden 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) sovereign wealth fund. The prime minister, his statement said, “was of the belief” that the money he had spent from his accounts had originated from the funds deposited by the Saudi royal family. The prime minister's supporters have been claiming that the Saudi gift was to help the ruling party win the tightly contested elections that were held in 2013. Even if this claim is true, it would then constitute a violation of the country's electoral laws. Apandi was the replacement for the former attorney general, Abdul Gani Patail, who was forced out of office last year, after he promised to carry out a thorough investigation into the allegations leveled against the prime minister. The deputy prime minister, Muhyidin Yassin, too was sacked for calling for an impartial inquiry into the charges against the prime minister. It was evident from the start that Prime Minister Najib was determined to brazen it out regardless of the political consequences. Since the revelation of huge sums of money being diverted from the 1MDB first came out in June last year, the Malaysian government has gone on overdrive arresting whistle blowers and muzzling the media. One Malaysian newspaper was shut down for three months. POLITICAL SITUATION FURTHER MUDDIED The prime minister's handpicked attorney general's investigations since then have come in for a lot of criticism from the opposition as well as from influential voices from within the ruling United Malay National Organisation (UMNO). Prime Minister Najib was quick to claim vindication and in a statement said that the corruption allegations against him “have been comprehensively put to rest”. But the clean chit given by the attorney general to the country's prime minister has only further muddied the political situation. The opposition is up in arms and wants further investigations into the government's diversion of billions of dollars of funds belonging to the IMDB. Prime Minister Najib is the chairman of the board of advisers of the 1MDB. To add to the woes of the prime minister, a unit of the US justice department, called the “Kleptocracy Initiative” is investigating allegations of corruption involving his close relatives and associates. It has previously seized properties belonging to relatives of politicians from countries like Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, South Korea and Taiwan. These are all countries having close political relations with the United States. The American media had run stories of huge investments by the prime minister's step son and wife in prime properties in New York and other cities. The transactions were done by shell companies. Much of the 1MDB money was also routed through shell companies. According to reports, a US Federal Grand Jury is now looking into the allegations. After he took over as prime minister in 2009, Najib had struck up a close personal friendship with President Barack Obama and had steered the country's foreign policy closer to Washington. He may need all the help from his friend to bail him out of the mess he currently finds himself in. A former American ambassador to Malaysia, John Mallot, said that Najib may now “be really sweating” over whether the Obama administration will make an announcement about the ongoing investigations being conducted. The diplomat said that the American government only makes a statement after it compiles foolproof evidence. Just days after the attorney general exonerated the prime minister, the Swiss government announced that there was a possibility that funds exceeding $4 billion, were misappropriated from State owned companies like the 1MDB. The Swiss attorney general's office has said that it will be sending a dossier containing “significant evidence of illegal transactions and wrong doings” to the concerned Malaysian authorities. Malaysia's attorney general had promised full cooperation for the investigations in September last year. From available indications, this cooperation has not been forthcoming. Instead, the Malaysian authorities have decided to close the case revolving round the $700 million deposited in the prime minister's account. This amount seems to be only the tip of the iceberg. Swiss authorities have said that they believe that public money was misappropriated and transferred into the bank accounts of Malaysian and UAE nationals. 1MDB had entered into business deals with a UAE State owned company Aabar in 2013. The middleman who negotiated the deal was a businessman, Jho Low, a close friend and business associate of the Malaysian prime minister's family. He was the man who helped the prime minister's stepson, Riza Aziz, acquire prime residential properties in New York city. Swiss authorities are requesting Kuala Lumpur to cooperate in the ongoing investigations. The Swiss attorney general's office however pointedly noted that none of the Malaysian State owned companies whose funds have gone missing have so far bothered to make any comments. Switzerland had frozen “tens of millions of dollars” in suspicious assets last year. Around the same time, Singapore announced that “it had seized a large number of bank accounts” as part of its investigations into a company closely linked with Najib and 1MDB. Singapore has said that it is “actively” probing allegations of money laundering related to 1MDB and was in touch with the US, Swiss and Malaysian authorities. “Singapore does not tolerate the use of its financial system as a refuge or conduit for illicit funds”, a joint statement issued by the Singapore Monetary Authority and Singapore Police said. The Swiss and Singaporean governments announcements are obviously a signal to the Malaysian government that their ongoing investigations will not be derailed by the decision to give Prime Minister Najib a clean chit. Hong Kong is also carrying out separate investigations. Malaysia's attorney general said in the last week of January that there was no need to cooperate with foreign authorities on investigations surrounding the Saudi “donation” to Prime Minister Najib. To add to Najib's discomfiture, the Saudi authorities have denied making any large political payments or loans to either the Malaysian government or individuals. A Saudi official told the American media that a royal gift of such a big amount would be “unprecedented”. The Saudi foreign minister, Adel el-Jubeir, while being careful to not contradict the Malaysian attorney general's “not guilty” verdict, said that he did not think that the money had come from the Saudi government or that it was a political donation. He said that he believed that the funds in the prime minister's account came from a private Saudi individual and that it was a business investment. A member of the royal family, who remained unnamed told the NYT in the first week of February that the money had indeed come from a Saudi prince but clarified that it was not a donation. He claimed that it was connected to a business deal. A small oil company called PetroSaudi was involved in a joint venture with 1MDB. DEMAND FOR EVIDENCE Malaysia's opposition has demanded that the attorney general provide evidence to prove that the prime minister had not used the 1MDB to launder political slush funds. The opposition said that even if the money in the prime minister's bank account came from a mysterious Arab donor, the attorney general should ascertain that the money did not originally originate from the 1MDB funds. Apandi has refused to either divulge the findings of his investigations or answer questions. He said in the first week of February that he had “no further comments” to make on the subject and that he stood by his decision to completely exonerate the beleaguered prime minister. The Malay political establishment backing Najib is hoping that Apandi's certificate will bring “closure” to the biggest scandal to hit the country since independence. But fissures are emerging in the ruling party and public opinion could turn decisively against the prime minister if more shocking revelations tumble out. Soon after the attorney general's report, Mukhriz Mahathir, the chief minister of Kedah state, was ousted from his position. He along with his father, Mahathir Mohammed, the former prime minister, have been very vocal in their criticism of corruption and cronyism. Mukhriz said that the real reason for his ouster was his criticism of the prime minister. Mukhriz said that “scandal after scandal” in Malaysia “was traumatising all of us”. Malaysia's Anti Corruption Commission has said that it would refer the attorney general's judgment that the prime minister had done no wrong to a special panel for deliberation. But under the country's constitution, the decision to initiate criminal prosecution lies solely with the attorney general. Last year, Apandi had dismissed the Central Bank's plea for criminal proceedings against 1MDB. The Central Bank had alleged that the 1MDB had breached the country's Exchange Control Act.