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Arrest warrant issued for journalist for reporting on corruption in Malaysia

  • Malaysian police have issued an arrest warrant for Claire Rewcastle Brown, an investigative journalist and editor of Sarawak Report.
  • Details on a $700 million transfer to the Malaysian PM’s bank account were first published on July 2 by Wall Street Journal and Sarawak Report.
  • Critics say the warrant is not feasible and legally untenable.

Malaysian police have issued an arrest warrant for Claire Rewcastle Brown, an investigative journalist and editor of Sarawak Report, an online news blog that covers deforestation and corruption issues in Malaysia. Rewcastle-Brown is the sister-in-law of former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

The arrest warrant came after Sarawak Report published stories detailing how a sum of about $700 million was transferred to the personal bank accounts of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak in Kuala Lumpur after the general elections in 2013.

“I think the Malaysian government is mainly trying to intimidate Clare Rewcastle’s contacts and sources in Malaysia,” Lukas Straumann, Executive Director of Bruno Manser Fonds (BMF), a fund set up to help conserve tropical rainforests and indigenous populations in Sarawak, told mongabay.com. “She has become so effective in disclosing government-related corruption that she has become a threat to Prime Minister Najib Razak’s interests.”

Details of the large sums of transfers were first published on July 2 by Wall Street Journal and Sarawak Report. Their exposé described how Malaysian investigators had linked the $700 million deposits to the Malaysian government investment fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, set up by Razak in 2009.

Sarawak has lost much of its primary forest to development. Photo taken in Gunung Mulu National Park by Morgan Erickson-Davis.

This fund’s mission, according to the 1MDB website, is to “drive the sustainable long-term economic development and growth of Malaysia by forging strategic global partnerships and attracting foreign direct investment into the country.” By doing so, 1MDB pledged to catapult Kuala Lumpur into a global financial center.

However, ever since its initiation, 1MDB has been heavily criticized for its lack of transparency by BMF, Sarawak Reports and other media. The fund has also been embroiled in controversy after amassing a massive debt of about $11 billion.

In the latest allegations, investigators looking into the 1MDB fund have traced the $700 million in Razak’s personal accounts to two deposits made in March 2013 by companies and funds linked to the 1MDB.

A Malaysian government spokesman, however, called the reports an attempt by political opponents to oust the Prime Minister. The government also claimed that the documents that were leaked and used in the reportage by Wall Street Journal and Sarawak Report were tampered with.

Moreover, the Malaysian anti-corruption commission cleared Razak by saying that the funds in his bank accounts were “contribution from Arab donors, and not from 1MDB.” The commission did not give any details of how the funds were obtained or spent, according to The Guardian.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, called this claim “hogwash” on his blog.

For her role in the reports published by Sarawak Report against the Prime Minister and 1MDB, Rewcastle-Brown, currently based in London, has been charged for activities that are “detrimental to parliamentary democracy.”

“We will proceed with the applications to place her on the Aseanapol wanted list as well as the Interpol red notice,” Datuk Seri Mohmad Salleh, head of the Malaysian Criminal Investigation Department, said in a media statement on August 4.

Rewcastle-Brown has, however, called the warrant ridiculous. “It’s not something they could execute against me. They have charged me under laws that don’t exist in the UK or any other normal democratic country,” she said in an interview with the Independent. “What they have said is that I have printed material that has caused concern in the minds of the public and that is a crime, apparently.”

Sarawak’s mountainous rainforest contains many unique formations, like some of the world’s biggest caves and the limestone pinnacles of Gunung Mulu National Park. Photo by Morgan Erickson-Davis.

Malaysian Home Minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, also said that Rewcastle-Brown could be extradited to Malaysia for “meddling with the country’s affairs.”

However, N. Surendran, a Malaysian lawyer and politician called the Home Minister’s threats “laughable” and “legally untenable.”

“Does Zahid seriously expect the British government to allow the extradition of one its citizens to Malaysia merely for having exposed a multi-billion dollar financial scandal?” Surendran told the media.

“As an immediate effect, Clare Rewcastle won’t be able to travel to Malaysia,” Straumann told mongabay.com. “But I see no way how the UK would extradite her as the ‘crime’ cited by the Malaysians (‘activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy’) doesn’t exist in the UK.”

Sarawak Report is not the only news outlet that is under attack by the Malaysian government. The Malaysian Home Ministry has also banned a newspaper published by The Edge Media Group for three months for its coverage on 1MDB’s financial controversies.

“The closing down of The Edge for a three-month-period is a clear warning to the press in Malaysia,” Straumann said. “Furthermore, the government might try to start censoring the internet or social media after they shut down Sarawak Report.”

Reportage on deforestation in Malaysia

Rewcastle-Brown’s troubles with the Malaysian government are not new.

In 2013, she was deported from Sarawak, the largest Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, for accusing then-Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud and his family for rampant logging of Sarawak’s rainforests for personal gains.

Both Rewcastle-Brown and the BMF reported extensively on how Taib, who had been Sarawak’s Chief Minister from 1981 to 2014, allegedly plundered Sarawak’s natural resources at the cost of indigenous communities.

According to a Sarawak Report post, “logging in Sarawak has made virtually no money for the state: it has created virtually no jobs for locals. It has merely enriched a handful of people and poured money into the ruling parties, so that they can continue their grip on the Sarawak cash cow.”

In fact, secret cables released by Wikileaks on August 30, 2011, showed that U.S. State Department Officials had also been aware of Taib’s corrupt activities in Sarawak since 2006. Taib resigned as the Chief Minister in February 2014, and was succeeded by his former brother-in-law, Adenan Satem.

Logging and deforestation in Sarawak continue, Straumann said.

Between 2001 and 2013, for instance, 2 million of Sarawak’s 11.6 million hectares of land area was affected by either deforestation or plantation harvesting, according to Global Forest Watch.

 

Intact Forest Landscapes (IFLs) are tracts of primary forest big enough and undisturbed enough to retain their original levels of biodiversity. Compared to neighboring Kalimantan, Sarawak has few IFLs; and of those, a large proportion have been degraded since 2000.

“The fight against timber corruption will be much more credible once Malaysia will start to prosecute the family members of former Chief Minister and current Governor, Taib Mahmud, who have made billions from cutting down the Borneo rainforest,” he said.

Straumann’s recently published book ‘Money Logging: On the Trail of the Asian Timber Mafia’ details how Taib amassed his wealth. The book, Straumann said, has launched a debate on the links between deforestation and corruption.

“Interestingly, the Taib family has shied back from suing me or my publisher despite their repeated legal threats,” he added. “Clearly, they are worried that one day they might be brought to justice.”

Things may not be all doom for Sarawak.

The Current Chief Minister, Adenan Satem, has talked about introducing legislation for heavier penalties on illegal logging in the state. At a recent meeting in London, he also reportedly said that no more timber concessions will be granted to companies.