by Gan Pei Ling, 3 Dec 2017 © The Malaysian Insight
DESPITE stepping down as Sarawak chief minister almost four years ago, Abdul Taib Mahmud is far from forgotten, at least for one environmental activist, who is determined to ensure the “White Rajah” is held accountable for the alleged embezzlement of billions of ringgit during his reign.
Dr Lukas Straumann, the executive director of Swiss-based environmental watchdog Bruno Manser Fund (BMF), has spent much of the last decade trying to track down and convince Malaysian and international authorities to look into the Taib family’s immense wealth.
In 2012, following years of investigation, BMF published a groundbreaking report estimating that Taib’s family had amassed assets worth US$21 billion (RM86 billion) worldwide.
In that report, Taib’s family was linked to real estate in the US, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, and hold stakes in more than 400 companies in 25 countries.
The wealth, claims Straumann and many of his colleagues, are proceeds from illegal and unsustainable logging, and he is trying to convince international prosecutors to look into the allegations and return the money to Sarawak.
“Taib was very smart. He didn’t put all his eggs in one basket. He went to different places as a safe haven for his money.
“He bought the Hilton Hotel in Adelaide (Australia) worth US$50 million today. Sakto in Canada, maybe US$200 million.
“The FBI building in Seattle is worth US$50 million today. Luxury properties in London.
“We are trying to get legal assistance in these countries to have these assets frozen,” he said.
Straumann’s soft-spoken nature belies his ferocity in following the trail of Taib’s wealth, leading some people to accuse him of having a personal vendetta against the Yang di-Pertua of Sarawak.
It’s an accusation he takes in his stride, insisting that he is motivated only by the desire to seek justice for the people of Sarawak.
“We have often been accused of being against the government.
“I think it’s important to see that we are against certain policies and corruption, we are not against certain people because they are them,” Straumann told The Malaysian Insight.
The historian and former journalist said as a Swiss-based organisation, BMF could access information and release documents that would be difficult for a Malaysian-based group to do.
“Taib is still around as governor. No one wants to touch him. Many people are scared.
“Some people are also compromised because they helped him. It’s a bit easier for us from the outside. We have more access to information. We are not living within these political systems,” he said.
Taib served as Sarawak chief minister for 33 years. After stepping down in February 2014, he became governor.
The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) had investigated Taib in 2011, but the trail has since gone cold.
In response to allegations that his wealth was amassed through the awarding of illegal logging concessions, Taib claimed that his family acquired the wealth through his daughter Jamilah Taib Murray’s business acumen.
In an interview with The Malaysian Insight, Straumann speaks about the BMF’s latest efforts to convince international authorities to investigate the Taib family wealth.
TMI: Can you share what happened after your book was published in 2014?
Straumann: The book (Money Logging: On the Trail of the Asian Timber Mafia) made the connection between unsustainable logging and money being taken out of the country. It’s very telling when you go to the logging concessions in Borneo. You see lorries full of timber going out. If you think of timber in terms of money, a lot of money is being taken out. The question is where is the money?
Our task was to follow the money. So we spent a long time investigating the Taib family. We found real estate they own in Canada, England, Australia, and the US worth several hundreds of millions.
We wrote to governments, and asked them to open criminal investigations or freeze the money and bring it back to Malaysia. Then we found out no foreign government nor public prosecutor in these countries would do anything.
They were either not interested, or they said there was not enough evidence or they didn’t have enough resources.
Like in London, the biggest financial centre in Europe, we filed a police report in 2014 against the company subsidiaries with proven links to Taib’s family. The National Crime Agency said there was nothing it could do at this stage.
Q: Why do you think this is the case?
Straumann: We don’t know why. [But] one of the reasons could be because Malaysia is not cooperating. They cannot get mutual legal assistance from Malaysia.
With these international cases, you need mutual legal assistance from the country of origin.
We know for instance that the Swiss attorney-general requested legal assistance from Malaysia on the 1MDB (1Malaysian Development Bhd) investigation but Malaysia did not provide legal assistance.
Q:Have you tried the MACC?
Straumann: We sent them a letter back in 2011. We sent a letter to the MACC, IGP (Inspector-General of Police) and the attorney-general, sharing information we have collected on the Taib family, and we asked them to arrest the Taib family on criminal conspiracy. They didn’t reply.
Q: Any follow up since 2011 with the Malaysian authorities?
Straumann: We didn’t follow-up in Malaysia because we realised they are not interested. The institutions are not independent in Malaysia to handle politically sensitive cases.
That’s why we decided to go to the countries where the money was transferred. Anti-corruption and asset recovery legislations have advanced a lot in the last 10 to 15 years.
We are (still) trying to get legal assistance in these countries to have (Taib family’s) assets frozen.
We found out later there is an instrument called private prosecution. If the state fails to prosecute a crime, you can come in as a private citizen or institution to assist the public prosecutors.
We have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that money has been laundered in Canada, which has been stolen by corrupt officials. We filed a court case in Canada last July. Litigation is ongoing. BMF and a Sarawakian living in Canada are the plaintiffs.
Q: Have there been moments where you just wanted to give up?
Straumann: Yes of course, when I first heard about the 12 dams being planned. First you came with logging, and then plantations, and now you want to drown everything. That was a bitter moment.
But then we realised the communities could do something about it. It was a big victory for the communities and the environmental movement when they successfully stopped the dam. It pays to be persistent.
Some of the old village headmen, they tell me it’s worth being defiant. Defiance has paid off.