KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — A prominent Malaysian opposition lawmaker, who has a reputation as a whistle blower, was sentenced to 18 months in jail on Monday for releasing a classified document on a controversial state investment fund.
A rights group called the sentence a “dangerous chill” on free speech that could lead to a more repressive and unaccountable government.
Rafizi Ramli, vice president of the People’s Justice Party, was found guilty by the court of violating the Official Secrets Act by possessing and disclosing part of a government audit report on the indebted 1MDB fund, founded by Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Rafizi, who often makes allegations on alleged government wrongdoing, said he will appeal. He risks being disqualified from running in the next general elections due in 2018.
“I am not shocked, sad, angry, afraid or anything. No such feeling. Just another day. Been like this. What doesn’t kill u makes u stronger,” he tweeted just before the sentencing. The court has set aside the sentence pending his appeal to a higher court.
The Lawyers for Liberty rights group called the sentence harsh and excessive, saying Rafizi was just performing his duties as a lawmaker.
The group questioned why the Auditor General’s report on 1MDB was suddenly classified as an official secret when it is normally presented to Parliament annually and made available to the public. It said authorities were quick to punish whistleblowers like Rafizi, but have taken little or no action against alleged corruption involving the fund.
“The conviction and sentence will create a dangerous chill on free speech and result in a more repressive, opaque and unaccountable government,” it said in a statement.
The 1MDB fund has been at the center of investigations in the U.S. and several countries amid allegations of a global embezzlement and money-laundering scheme. Najib started the fund shortly after taking office in 2009 to promote economic development projects but the fund accumulated billions in debts over the years.
The US justice department says at least $3.5 billion has been stolen from 1MDB by people close to Najib and initiated action in July to seize $1.3 billion it says was taken from the fund to buy assets in the U.S. The government complaints also say that more than $700 million has landed in the accounts of “Malaysian Official 1.” They did not name the official, but appear to be referring to Najib.
Najib has denied any wrongdoing since the allegations of massive fraud in the fund erupted last year. He remains firmly in political control by clamping down on critics and because of unwavering support of most ruling party members.
Najib’s ruling coalition won the last elections in 2013 but lost the popular vote to an opposition coalition that includes Rafizi’s party.