A chorus of international outrage was struck immediately after the sentencing of opposition politician Rafizi Ramli for disclosing part of the Auditor General’s report into the 1MDB corruption scandal, which has severely damaged Malaysia’s reputation in business and politics.
London-based Amnesty International immediately called for the 18-month sentence to be quashed, arguing Rafizi had acted in the public interest by bringing to light information about one of the biggest corruption scandals in Malaysia’s recent history.
“By invoking the Official Secrets Act, the Malaysian authorities are yet again taking the cover of national security to stop people from raising legitimate questions about the 1MDB funds and obstructing the society from receiving such information,” said Josef Benedict, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for South East Asia and the Pacific.
Rafizi was convicted under the Official Secrets Act of 1972, the latest episode in a scandal that has overwhelmed Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak. The Bersih pro-democracy rally planned for this Saturday is expected champion Rafizi’s cause.
On March 24, 2016, at a press conference Rafizi publicized a page of the Auditor General’s report into the 1MDB corruption scandal. He was detained in early April, charged, and now sentenced, by judge Zulqarnain Hassan, for possessing a confidential government document and presenting it to journalists.
He is currently on bail pending an appeal to the High Court.
“If the appeals process is exhausted without the verdict being overturned, he will lose his seat in parliament and be sent to prison solely for the peaceful exercise of his rights,” Benedict said. “If Rafizi Ramli is imprisoned, Amnesty International would consider him a prisoner of conscience.”
The 1 Malaysia Development Berhad fund (1MDB) – established by Najib in 2009 – is also under investigation by at least six countries for money laundering.
The United States is suing for the return of $1 billion in assets from $3.5 billion allegedly misappropriated by the fund, which has also accumulated losses of $11 billion.
Najib has faced allegations that almost $700 million was transferred to his personal bank accounts ahead of elections in 2013. That, and allegations of bribery in the acquisition of two French submarines, have led to calls for his resignation.
The killing of the Deputy Public Prosecutor Anthony Kevin Morais has also been linked to the case. He was investigating Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, when he disappeared. His body was later found stuffed in a cement-filled oil drum that had been dumped in a river.
Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, said Najib’s alleged involvement in the corruption scandal is information that the public has a right to know and express views about without facing politically motivated prosecutions.
“The conviction of opposition MP Rafizi Ramli under the Official Secrets Act is an unprecedented, rights-abusing use of this act, which can have only one purpose: to intimidate whistle-blowers into silence over the 1MDB corruption scandal.”
Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, president of the opposition People’s Justice Party, said the sentencing was a sad day for democracy in Malaysia.
“It is sad when a democrat is taken to court for speaking out and defending the rights and interests of citizens,” Wan Azizah said in a report published by the news portal Free Malaysia Today.
She also urged the government to remove the Auditor General’s report on 1MDB from the Official Secrets Act, saying a refusal to do so would only strengthen perceptions that Malaysia was led by a kleptocratic government.
“We can see clearly that in countries such as Singapore, United States, and Switzerland, investigations and action have been taken against several individuals who have direct connection to 1MDB.
“Without the full report, Parliament cannot discuss the findings and identify just how large a sum has been misappropriated,” she said.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt