By Nantha and Hadi Azmi
Malaysia’s new government on Monday ordered the attorney general to go on leave and barred him and several other top officials from leaving the country, amid a probe into an alleged cover up of ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak’s links to a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal.
In addition, sources said, the nation’s chief treasurer was relieved of his duties and the chairman of the country’s anti-corruption agency (MACC) had resigned.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told a televised news conference that the solicitor-general would temporarily take over the duties of Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali.
“There have been lots of complaints against the attorney-general,” Mahathir told reporters. “On that basis, we gave him a holiday.”
“Once investigations are carried out, then we can suspend him and prevent him from leaving the country,” he said.
In 2016, Apandi cleared Najib of any wrongdoing related to allegations of corruption tied to the state fund 1MDB, which, according to the U.S. Justice Department, was looted of $4.5 billion by associates of Najib. This included nearly $700 million that landed in Najib’s private bank accounts, the department said. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Apandi had also halted domestic investigations into the alleged embezzlement.
The new prime minister made the announcement as he formally began his work on Monday, receiving his first official visitor – Brunei’s leader, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah – and meeting newly appointed government officials.
Shortly after he was sworn in as the country’s seventh prime minister on Thursday, Mahathir told reporters that “certain heads must fall” over the scandal-plagued 1MDB, which Najib formed in 2009 ostensibly to pursue development projects that would benefit Malaysians.
Mahathir, 92 and now the world’s oldest state leader, sprang out of political retirement two years ago. He quit the ruling United Malays National Organization party then and later joined the opposition, accusing UMNO’s leaders of shielding Najib from the 1MDB allegations.
Barred from leaving the country
After Mahathir’s news conference on Monday, a government news release announced that treasury chief Mohamad Irwan Serigar Abdullah would “not be allowed to carry out his duties as treasurer general or any matters relating to the finance ministry.”
Irwan, who also served as chairman of 1MDB, would also be barred from leaving the country, government sources told BenarNews.
Arul Kanda, chief executive officer of 1MDB, and Najib’s former aide, Abdul Razak Baginda, were also barred from traveling abroad, according to the sources who requested anonymity and said they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Mahathir, during his news conference at the administrative capital Putrajaya, said the government decided to bar certain individuals from leaving the country because their assistance was needed for the 1MDB probe.
“Their passports, however, have not been revoked. There is no blacklist, we are only investigating various officers against whom we have gotten reports of wrongdoings,” he said. “We cannot allow them to leave the country in the interest of facilitating investigations.”
Mahathir also said that ministry officials had been instructed not to destroy important documents. He announced that he would appoint a new anti-corruption commission chief.
The hold-departure order against officials from the toppled administration came two days after Mahathir issued orders to bar Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, from leaving the country.
“We do not want to be saddled with extradition requests,” Mahathir said, referring to Najib.
On Saturday, Mahathir said he had instructed the police to declassify a 1MDB report that was protected by the Official Secrets Act.
“We are investigating as soon as possible money laundering and we have to contact America, Singapore, Switzerland and Luxembourg,” he said. “It will take time but we want to act as soon as possible.”
MACC chief resigns
Four people are high on Mahathir’s top list to head the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) after its head, Dzulkifli Ahmad, tendered his resignation on Monday, sources told BenarNews on Monday.
Among the four were Mohd Shukri Abdull, former MACC deputy chief commissioner for operations; and current immigration department director general Mustafar Ali, who served as MACC’s deputy commissioner for prevention before his new appointment as immigration chief.
The new MACC chief would be announced hopefully by Tuesday, Mahathir told reporters Monday.
Meanwhile, Abdul Razak Idris, MACC’s former director of intelligence and investigation, lodged a report with the anti-corruption agency against Najib, accusing the former PM of abuse of power by preventing 1MDB investigations.
If found guilty, Najib faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine, legal experts said.
Abdul Razak told BenarNews that the report was only filed now because “previously it would have been a waste of time.”
“The investigation will only be closed, because of who is involved,” he said.
Anti-fake news law to be ‘revisited’
Mahathir, in a short statement on Sunday, said he would redefine a controversial anti-fake news law introduced by Najib.
The law will be revisited and a proper definition will be provided, so that media practitioners and the public can get a clear idea on what is fake, he said.
“Even though we support freedom of the press and freedom of speech, there are limits,” Mahathir said, apparently backtracking from an election campaign promise to entirely abolish the legislation, which had been criticized as Najib’s attempt to quell political dissent and freedom of speech in the run-up to the May 9 election. On the day he was sworn into office, Mahathir cited the anti-fake news law when he told reporters that his government would “abolish suppressive and unfair laws.”
Just weeks ago, Mahathir himself became a target of the Anti-Fake News Bill 2018, which was passed in April. Under the law, making or sharing fake news would be punishable by up to six years in prison.
Police said Mahathir was being investigated for allegedly spreading fake news by saying he suspected that a private plane, which was to take him to campaign across the country, had been sabotaged.
Last month, a Danish citizen was convicted under the law after admitting he made false claims over the killing of a Hamas militant on a video that he posted on YouTube.
Meanwhile, in another move made by the new government on Monday, officials lifted a travel ban imposed on political cartoonist and BenarNews contributor Zunar, whose real name is Zulkiflee Anwarul Haque.
Zunar made the announcement on his Twitter page.
Zunar had created widely publicized illustrations criticizing Najib and his wife, Rosmah.
He had been arrested and charged with sedition for allegedly insulting Najib through his caricatures related to the 1MDB scandal.