Malaysia: 3 UMNO Leaders Cleared of Corruption Charges in as Many Months

S. Adie Zul and Nisha David
Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia: 3 UMNO Leaders Cleared of Corruption Charges in as Many Months UMNO secretary general Ahmad Maslan (center) arrives with supporters at the Kuala Lumpur Court Complex, Sept. 29, 2021.
S. Mahfuz/BenarNews

The acquittals of three senior UMNO officials on corruption-related charges since June does not bode well for international perceptions of Malaysia’s efforts to combat graft, now that the party is firmly back in power, according to analysts.

In the latest acquittal, Ahmad Maslan, the secretary-general of UMNO, this week saw charges of money laundering and giving false statements to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) dropped by the Kuala Lumpur High Court after he paid a 1.1 million ringgit (U.S. $262,850) fine.

His United Malays National Organization party regained power in early 2020 as a member of Malaysia’s ruling coalition, and today leads another unelected government that came to power in August.

Tunku Mohar Mokhtar, an academic at the International Islamic University of Malaysia, said the acquittal of Ahmad Maslan and the other two UMNO leaders during the past three months does not help improve negative perceptions toward the party. They could further jeopardize the country’s standing on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), an annual ranking by the watchdog group Transparency International of countries’ efforts to combat corruption, he said.

“CPI is about perception. Thus far, the perception is generally negative toward the government as its foundation included lawmakers who are perceived to be corrupt. A fall in the CPI cannot be discounted,” Tunku Mohar told BenarNews.

Another analyst agreed, saying she expected to see Malaysia fall on the index despite the government’s pledge of institutional reform.

UMNO was swept out of power in the 2018 general election by an opposition alliance, which campaigned on a platform of purging government of deep-seated corruption. The opposition ousted then-Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was implicated in massive allegations of corruption and abuse of power tied to the 1MDB financial scandal.

In 2020, Malaysia’s CPI ranking fell from 51 the year before to 57 among 180 countries, according to Transparency International.

The report by the Berlin-based NGO attributed the drop to the sudden change in government in early 2020, when UMNO returned to power as part of an alliance led by Muhyiddin Yassin, the leader of the Bersatu party.

When Muhyiddin resigned as prime minister in August, Malaysia’s king, who had appointed him to the post in 2020, appointed Ismail Sabri Yaakob of UMNO as his successor.

Ahmad, 53, faced a charge of money laundering by not declaring to the Inland Revenue Board (IRB) money he had received in 2013 from then-Prime Minister Najib.

Shahrul Hamidi and Haziq, the law firm representing Ahmad, said prosecutors withdrew charges against Ahmad because he had paid the fine.

“This settlement is not Ahmad’s guilty plea to all charges against him. It was done in accordance with the law and has gone through a transparent and orderly process. This is solely for the purpose of this case and has nothing to do with any political factors,” the firm said in a statement Wednesday.

Regardless of the legal process and the more recent outcomes of corruption cases, the court of public opinion is skewed against UMNO and its leadership, according to Tunku Mohar. 

Despite Ahmad’s claim that an offer was in place in 2019 during the administration of then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad for him to pay the fine, Tunku Mohar said that because this was not publicly known, it is understandable that the high court’s ruling on Wednesday shocked many Malaysians.

“The public has every right to be skeptical as to the reasons for his acquittal,” Tunku Mohar said.

Ahmad, a deputy finance minister under Najib’s government, said he had the offer in October 2019 but decided to fight the charges in court because of hefty fines that others had to pay compared with the actual amount of money allegedly linked to the theft of funds from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a sovereign wealth fund established by Najib in 2009.

“I challenged because in some cases, the amount received [by the accused] was 50,000 ringgit ($11,944) but the amount of the fine was 50 times higher,” Ahmad told MPs during a floor debate on Thursday, adding “I fought my case, but the process takes too long.

“That is the court decision that we should respect,” he said as he dismissed concerns expressed by other MPs.

Ahmad said he had admitted to MACC that he received 1.1 million ringgit – the amount that he paid back.

In a statement, MACC officials said the fine was a form of punitive action and asset recovery taken against Ahmad.

Sivakumar, an MP with the opposition Democratic Action Party, criticized Ahmad’s acquittal.

“The case proved the existence of a ‘double standard’ practice in our country’s judicial system. I am sure that this is not possible if the accused were not an influential member of parliament,” he said in a statement Thursday.

The credibility of the Attorney-General’s Office and the judiciary system had now been completely eroded, he said.

Rabi’ah Aminudin, a political science assistant professor at International Islamic University of Malaysia, said she believed that the acquittal of the three UMNO leaders would likely have a negative effect on perceptions of corruption in the country.

“In my opinion, [the acquittals] are expected to affect the country’s ranking as it reflects the downward trend of good governance in terms of transparency and accountability. It also reflects the reverse in institutional reforms that were promised,” she said, referring to the annual rankings by Transparency International.

Previous rulings

The other two recent acquittals date back to June and July.

On July 16, the Court of Appeal overturned a Kuala Lumpur High Court conviction of UMNO lawmaker and former cabinet minister Tengku Adnan Mansor who had been sentenced on corruption charges to 12 months and fined 2 million ringgit ($477,700). In a 2-1 decision, the appellate court determined that the money Tengku Adnan had received was to fund two by-elections.

A month earlier, former Sabah state Chief Minister Musa Aman saw 46 corruption charges related to logging concession contracts dismissed after the Attorney General’s Office instructed prosecutors to drop the charges. No specific reason was given.

Meanwhile two of the most recognizable members of UMNO – former PM Najib and Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the party’s president – are facing trials linked to corruption charges involving missing huge amounts of missing cash.

Najib faces a total of 42 criminal charges stemming from corruption linked to 1MDB. Malaysian and U.S. prosecutors allege that at least $4.5 billion (18.8 billion ringgit) was stolen and diverted through acquisitions of real estate, artwork and luxury properties by Najib and his associates.

Already convicted on seven charges linked to a 1MDB subsidiary, Najib is standing trial on 25 charges of abuse of power and laundering of money connected with 2.3 billion ringgit ($551 million), which went missing from 1MDB. He could face additional trials on the 10 remaining charges.

Zahid, who served as deputy prime minister under Najib, faces trial on 47 corruption charges involving millions of ringgits in a case not related to 1MDB.

Muzliza Mustafa in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.


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Mohd Nakbar
Oct 01, 2021 11:50 AM

Can someone explain how Najib's appeal ended in May yet they have not come to a decision on his appeal now that it's October? Isn't this the most obvious, eye-rolling form of corruption? Does anyone actually think that these judges are spending over 4 months deliberating on whether the guilty man is guilty or not? We the people want to know WHO is preventing these judges from coming to a decision!