KUALA LUMPUR • Malaysian opposition politician Rafizi Ramli was sentenced to 18 months in jail by a court yesterday for leaking a classified document on a corruption scandal allegedly involving the prime minister.
Rafizi, a Member of Parliament for a Selangor constituency who is a prominent whistle-blower and a thorn in the government's side, could become ineligible to stand as a candidate in the upcoming general election, unless the conviction is overturned.
The conviction, which he is appealing against, was sharply criticised by the opposition and human rights groups as a worrying use of a state secrets law.
Rafizi is secretary-general and a vice-president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).
He was convicted by a Kuala Lumpur Sessions Court for violating the Official Secrets Act by revealing parts of an Auditor-General's report on the scandal involving the state fund 1MDB.
Prime Minister Najib Razak is fighting allegations that billions of dollars went missing from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), which he founded in 2009. Datuk Seri Najib chaired its advisory board until May and has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
The 1MDB case has sparked investigations in several countries including Singapore and the United States.
Rafizi, 39, was found guilty of unauthorised possession of page 98 of the 1MDB Audit Report in March. The court accepted that he committed the offence in Parliament on March 24, as the Auditor-General's report on 1MDB had been declared a state secret by the government.
Under the Malaysian Constitution, a person cannot stand as a political candidate if he has received a sentence of at least one year in jail or a RM2,000 fine, or both.
If the conviction is not set aside on appeal, Rafizi will be ruled out of the general election which is widely expected to be called some time next year.
The verdict comes just days ahead of a massive rally planned on Saturday by pro-democracy group Bersih, calling for Mr Najib to step down over his alleged involvement in the 1MDB scandal.
"It is a sad day for democracy in Malaysia," said PKR president Wan Azizah Wan Ismail in a statement. "It is sad when a democrat is taken to court for speaking out and defending the rights and interests of citizens."
Human Rights Watch said Rafizi's conviction had "only one purpose: to intimidate whistle-blowers into silence over the 1MDB corruption scandal".
Responding to the verdict, Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Abdul Rahman Dahlan said Rafizi had been repeatedly warned that he would be breaching the Official Secrets Act if he disclosed content from the audit.
"He tried a cheap stunt for personal political gain, but he knowingly committed a serious crime in doing so. It is right that he pays the price, and he has only himself to blame," he said in a statement.
Malaysia's Election Commission said yesterday that Rafizi will remain an MP until his appeal is heard.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK