KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on Monday (May 18) distanced himself from the growing storm over a decision to drop criminal charges against Mr Riza Aziz, stepson to former premier Najib Razak, who was accused of laundering US$248 million (S$354 million) in the 1MDB scandal.
“The Prime Minister wishes to stress that he was not involved in the agreement to the discharge not amounting to acquittal... reached by the prosecution and accused,” Tan Sri Muhyiddin’s office said in a statement.
The discharge, granted on Thursday, has sparked concerns that similar deals could be offered to political figures connected to the new Perikatan Nasional government, namely leaders from former ruling party Umno who are currently facing corruption charges.
Mr Muhyiddin insisted on Monday that he would not “interfere in the affairs of the Attorney General’s Chambers and judiciary in deciding on criminal cases in the country, including high-profile cases”.
His statement came hours after former Malaysian Attorney-General (A-G) Tommy Thomas again denied claims that he agreed to a "sweetheart deal" to drop charges of money laundering levelled at Mr Riza in exchange for Mr Riza returning US$108 million to the government.
Instead, he said he would never have sanctioned such a deal, as Mr Riza was surrendering assets that had already been seized by the authorities in relation to the case.
Tan Sri Thomas was responding to his replacement, Tan Sri Idrus Harun, who said on Sunday his predecessor had "agreed to the (settlement) in principle", backing up previous claims by the Malaysian Anti Corruption Commission (MACC) that the discharge not amounting to an acquittal granted last Thursday was due to an agreement between the accused and the former A-G.
Having already called MACC chief Azam Baki a liar, Mr Thomas issued a statement on Monday that "since Tan Sri Idrus is at pains to emphasise the weight he gave to my so-called 'agreement in principle' (which itself is a fiction), let me state publicly that I would have never sanctioned this deal".
He said that Mr Idrus' assertion that "Malaysia is expected to recover approximately US$108 million" from the settlement "is a red herring".
Mr Thomas, who resigned as AG in February when the previous Pakatan Harapan (PH) government was ousted, said that during his 20 months in office the US Justice Department (DOJ) had already been returning “billions of ringgit” seized in the global hunt for the alleged US$4.5 billion embezzled from 1MDB.
The purpose of prosecuting Mr Riza - whose film production company Red Granite has already had to return US$57 million allegedly from 1MDB - “was not to strengthen the chances of securing monies”, Mr Thomas said, as the “DOJ would have returned these monies in any event because it belongs to Malaysia and was stolen from Malaysia”.
“Riza is not offering to pay any new money or monies from any source other than DOJ seized assets. Thus, Riza is unnecessarily getting credit for returning monies that are not his. Hence, it is a sweetheart deal for Riza but terrible for Malaysia,” Mr Thomas said.
1MDB was controlled by Datuk Seri Najib when he was in power from 2009 until his defeat in the 2018 election by PH. The deal with Mr Riza came just two months after the PH government collapsed and was replaced by Perikatan Nasional, a new ruling alliance that includes Umno, the party once helmed by Mr Najib.
Critics have noted that the settlement amount included three properties - located in Beverly Hills, New York and London - already seized by the DOJ and was far less than the sum Mr Riza is alleged to have laundered.
“So anyone who wants to steal, just give back half to the government, and you can enjoy the rest. I have no idea if this is legal but it has never happened before in Malaysia,” former premier Mahathir Mohamad said Monday.
Mr Thomas also questioned the "premature" and "bizarre" timing of the settlement with Malaysian prosecutors, as the government lost "substantial leverage" because it was issued before Riza - whose film company produced Hollywood blockbusters such as the Leonardo DiCaprio-fronted Wolf Of Wall Street - had ensured the return of the US$108 million.
His remarks come amid criticism of the settlement, in which Mr Idrus said the ad hoc prosecutor, former Federal Court judge Gopal Sri Ram, had suggested accepting the defendant's proposal. Datuk Seri Sri Ram has refused to comment on his role in the settlement, saying Mr Idrus' Sunday statement is "the end of the matter".
The deal with Mr Riza came just two months after the PH government collapsed when defectors joined then opposition parties, including Umno, the party once helmed by Mr Najib, to form a new ruling alliance.
Top opposition leaders issued a joint statement on Sunday, decrying the decision as "a signal that other high-profile cases involving political figures will find the same resolution".
Mr Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor, as well as current Umno president Zahid Hamidi and other leading figures from when Mr Najib led the party, are facing hundreds of graft charges laid when PH was in power.