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Malaysia Names Human-Rights Activist as Anti-Graft Chief

Vathani Panirchellvum and Hadi Azmi
Kuala Lumpur
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Chief Secretary to the Government Ismail Bakar (left) presents the appointment letter to new MACC chief Latheefa Koya at the government offices in Putrajaya, Malaysia, June 4, 2019.
Chief Secretary to the Government Ismail Bakar (left) presents the appointment letter to new MACC chief Latheefa Koya at the government offices in Putrajaya, Malaysia, June 4, 2019.
Courtesy Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission

Malaysia on Tuesday announced a change of leadership at the anti-corruption commission that has been at the forefront of the first-ever prosecution of a former prime minister, and in another first it appointed a woman, lawyer Latheefa Koya, to be the agency’s new chief.

The prime minister’s office issued a press statement on the eve of Eid celebrations stating that Latheefa would serve as chief commissioner of the MACC for two years, retroactive to June 1.

“The appointment is among the steps toward reform in government institutions,” the statement said.

A graduate of University of London law school, Latheefa, 45, co-founded human rights watchdog Lawyers for Liberty in 2011and served as a central committee member of Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party (PKR) from 2003-2018.

Her clients over the years included Anwar in his losing legal battle against sodomy charges, and political cartoonist Zunar, who faced sedition charges for tweets criticizing Anwar’s jailing.

The prime minister’s office said Malaysia’s king had consented to a request by outgoing MACC chief Mohd Shukri Abdull to have his two-year term shortened so he could retire. Shukri served MACC for 32 years.

Shukri was appointed to head the agency on May 17, 2018, days after Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition formed the new government following its stunning upset of then-Prime Minister Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional coalition.

Contacted by BenarNews, Shukri said he had promised Mahathir to serve for one year to investigate financial scandals involving 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and its subsidiary, SRC International.

“My mission has been completed. MACC is on the right track and the team is united to fight corruption,” he said, without commenting on his successor.

Najib, his wife, Rosmah Mansor, and former government officials have been charged with crimes linked to what U.S. prosecutors called “kleptocracy at its worst.” Malaysian and U.S. prosecutors allege that U.S. $4.5 billion (18.3 billion ringgit) were diverted to accounts held by Najib and others from 1MDB and SRC.

Free from politics?

Latheefa’s appointment drew mixed reactions because of her association with PKR.

“The appointment should have been discussed with us, but we didn’t know. MACC is supposed to be free from politics, but now we have a political party member heading it,” Parliamentary Special Select Committee (PSSC) chairman William Leong said.

In a tweet, Latheefa said she had addressed the issue.

“Thanks for the advice. But I have already sent in my resignation with immediate effect as an ordinary member of PKR … upon being told of my impending appointment as MACC chief,” she tweeted.

Fortify Rights legal director Eric Paulsen, her colleague at Lawyers for Liberty, tweeted a congratulatory message.

“[H]er appointment sends a powerful message that the government is serious in eradicating corruption and abuse of power. It is no more business as usual, big fish or small fish, Malaysia must be corruption-free,” he said.

Political analyst Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani of Universiti Utara Malaysia said Latheefa had proven her credibility.

“She is well known as a lawyer for PKR and as an activist. She would be able to perform well and there isn’t an issue about her credibility. But there are concerns as she is a political party member and not from MACC itself,” he said when contacted by BenarNews. “Perhaps this is part of the strategy to implement the government’s reforms.”

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