Clare Rewcastle Brown: UK journalist says Malaysia sentence is 'political revenge'

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 MOHD RASFAN/AFP via Getty Images)Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Sarawak Report founder Clare Rewcastle Brown is the sister-in-law of former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown

By Leisha Chi-Santorelli

BBC News Culture

UK journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown has accused the Malaysia of seeking "political revenge" for her reporting after a court jailed her in absentia.

The 64-year-old is appealing a surprise conviction for criminal defamation of a Malaysian royal handed down this week.

A local magistrates court sentenced her to two years in prison during a single-day hearing.

Ms Rewcastle Brown told the BBC she was being targeted after her work on the multibillion-dollar 1MDB scandal.

The scandal saw $4.5bn (£3.9bn) stolen from the Malaysian sovereign fund founded by former Prime Minister Najib Razak in what is thought to be the world's largest kleptocracy case.

It ensnared top Hollywood celebrities, brought down bankers from Goldman Sachs and saw the first criminal charges filed against the storied Wall Street firm.

Najib was jailed in 2022 but still faces a raft of other charges. He denies all wrongdoing.

On Wednesday the Kuala Terengganu Magistrates' Court ruled that Ms Rewcastle Brown criminally defamed Malaysia's former Queen Nur Zahirah in her book The Sarawak Report - The Inside Story of the 1MDB Expose.

Ms Rewcastle Brown said she was not notified in advance nor given the opportunity to defend herself in court. Her lawyers have already requested the ruling be set aside by a higher court on violations of the criminal procedure code.

"I'm afraid this is malicious, it is politically motivated. And I see it as revenge for my public interest journalism," she told the BBC."I think there are a lot of very powerful and wealthy people in Malaysia who are revengeful that I identified the corruption of their former prime minister [Najib Razak], who remains popular and powerful and wealthy.

"And I think that it's no coincidence that just two or three days after [he] failed to get a pardon from the [Malaysian] King that would have let him out of jail after a fraction of his sentence, that this sentence was then passed against me".

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) described the decision to jail Rewcastle Brown as "outrageous" and has called on Malaysia to scrap the sentence and to "stop harassing the journalist over her crucial reporting on the country's 1MDB scandal, recognized as one of the world's biggest-ever corruption cases".

"The harsh ruling will deter all reporters from investigating official corruption in Malaysia and represents a clear and present danger to press freedom in the country," CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative Shawn Crispin said in a statement issued on Friday.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Malaysia's 13th King, Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin, finished his five-year reign in 2011. Sultanah Nur Zahirah is to his left with Najib Razak's wife Rosmah Mansor behind them

Defamation cases

Malaysia has the world's only rotating constitutional monarchy. The federal head of state changes every five years in what is a largely ceremonial role but the monarch wields significant cultural and political influence.

The oil-rich coastal state of Terengganu is home to one of the country's nine royal families. The Malay ruler is called a Sultan and his wife, a Sultanah.

Terrangganu Sultanah Nur Zahirah, who served as Malaysia's Queen from 2006-2011, has filed two defamation cases against Ms Rewcastle Brown for allegedly insinuating she was involved in corrupt practices linked to 1MDB.

The first was a civil case in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur which was dismissed by the High Court in October 2022. That was overturned on appeal and is still making its way through the courts. The second filing was the case in her local magistrates court which she has won.

Ms Rewcastle Brown said there was a misidentification error in the book that was corrected back in 2018. She also apologised for the error. But her legal team have argued that the error is not defamation, nor criminal libel.

"I do fear that there has been manipulation of this case and I do not seek to lay blame for that at the feet of the Sultanah. She was understandably annoyed," Ms Rewcastle Brown told the BBC.

Sultanah Nur Zahirah and her legal team have been approached for comment by the BBC.

Najib's reduced sentence

The former leader is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence that was halved this week by Malaysia's pardons board - a move that sends a message leaders in South East Asia can act with impunity, said James Chin, professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania.

Najib's United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which previously led the ruling coalition that governed Malaysia, has been pushing for a royal pardon after testing and exhausting other legal avenues of appeal.

Image source, Reuters

Image caption,

Najib had his sentence halved last month

Ms Rewcastle Brown told the BBC she finds it hard to believe Najib's reduced sentence and her defamation conviction, which took place shortly afterward, are not linked.

"I have become somewhat emblematic in the eyes of those who are deeply resentful that Najib was found guilty and convicted of this crime.

"We can speculate, but I think that it's hard to come to the conclusion other than it is all connected to this 1MDB case".

Najib's lawyers are reportedly also trying to get Netflix documentary Man On The Run about the 1MDB scandal taken down for "sub judicial and contemptuous" content.

He is also said to be looking to take legal action against former Malaysian attorney-general Tommy Thomas and Rewcastle-Brown over their statements in the documentary Man On The Run.

Netflix and Mr Kim with both approached for comment by the BBC but have yet to respond.

Interpol involvement

Ms Rewcastle Brown also fears the Terengganu magistrates court ruling may impact her ability to travel freely.

Malaysian law enforcement officials have twice before applied for an Interpol Red Notice for Rewcastle Brown on charges related to her 1MDB reporting. Interpol denied the previous two applications, she said.

It is unclear whether Malaysian authorities will pursue an Interpol Red Notice for Rewcastle Brown's arrest again. The Kuala Terengganu Magistrates' Court did not immediately reply to the BBC's request for comment.

Ms Rewcastle Brown is requesting support from the UK government and various non-governmental organisations such as the CPJ and Index on Censorship.

Born in Sarawak, Ms Rewcastle Brown has two grown sons with husband Andrew Brown, a media strategist and former journalist who is the younger brother of former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

She founded investigative website Sarawak Report in 2010, which made her name as a journalist and environmental campaigner focused on corruption in the lucrative palm oil trade.

She hopes to one day return to Malaysia without the threat of imprisonment.

"I will just keep going," she said. "I'm just one of many, many journalists campaigning to support the right of journalists to do their job, which is to bring information in the public interest to the wider audience."

Image source, Clare Rewcastle Brown

Image caption,

A Malaysian police arrest warrant from 2021 for Clare Rewcastle Brown which Interpol has denied twice before

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