A construction worker talks on the phone in front of a 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) billboard at the Tun Razak Exchange development in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 3, 2016. Picture taken February 3, 2016. REUTERS/Olivia Harris/Files
© Reuters

Malaysia has rebuffed Swiss efforts to investigate multibillion-dollar corruption allegations surrounding the 1MDB state investment fund.

Officials in Kuala Lumpur refused an appeal from Swiss authorities for help in gathering evidence into claims that up to $4.8bn was diverted from companies linked to 1MDB, a fund set up by Najib Razak, Malaysia’s prime minister.

The refusal will add to questions about the adequacy of Malaysia’s apparent response to an affair that is the subject of multiple international inquiries.

Switzerland had twice asked Malaysia for mutual legal assistance, Michael Lauber, the Swiss attorney-general, said in an interview.

“Very recently we have had the response that the Malaysian authorities will not reply to our request,” he said. “They just said that under their legal framework, they can’t reply.”

Mr Lauber insisted that the Swiss criminal investigations would not be derailed, citing help from Singapore as well as US and European authorities.

“We will protect the integrity of our financial centre as others protect theirs. For that we need international co-operation and if, for whatever reason, there is none — as is the case here with Malaysia — we will find other ways, and we have great co-operation with several other jurisdictions,” he said.

“At the moment, I do not see any harm or direct impact on our investigations. That might change — but it is too early to say.”

The scale of the alleged misappropriation of funds could expand beyond the $4.8bn announced this year, he hinted. “Where does it end? I don’t know,” he said.

Mr Lauber refused to be drawn on reasons for Malaysia’s refusal to co-operate. “As a prosecutor, I am not the one to speculate about the reasons behind it,” he said.

The Malaysian attorney-general’s chambers said it was unable to accede to Switzerland’s requests because of a continuing criminal investigation by Malaysian police in relation to matters concerning 1MDB. “The attorney-general is of the opinion that these requests could prejudice a criminal matter in Malaysia,” it said.

Malaysia was committed to co-operating with international partners and there was “no issue of Malaysia blocking the Swiss criminal inquiry”, it added.

As international pressure on Malaysia’s rulers has mounted, Mr Najib has tightened his grip on power at home, replacing the attorney-general and sacking a critical deputy prime minister. The new attorney-general ruled in January that Mr Najib, who denies any wrongdoing, has no case to answer over $681m transferred into his personal bank account.

Mohamed Apandi Ali, the attorney-general, ordered Malaysia’s anti-corruption agency to close down its investigation into the transfers into Mr Najib’s account and shut a separate inquiry into SRC International, a 1MDB subsidiary.

Two Swiss banks, four people and “unknown persons” are under investigation in Swiss criminal proceedings related to 1MDB.

Mr Najib is not involved in the Swiss inquiries, Mr Lauber confirmed. “Our goal is not to go against any foreign, politically-exposed persons so long as there is no direct impact on our investigations, which are clearly focused on the Swiss financial centre and maintaining its integrity,” Mr Lauber said.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak listens questions from members of the media after an event in Kuala Lumpur on July 21, 2016. Singapore said on July 21 it had seized nearly 180 million USD linked to scandal-tainted Malaysian state fund 1MDB, raising the pressure a day after Washington moved to grab more than $1 billion in assets over "enormous" fraud. The back-to-back announcements are the clearest and most damning steps yet taken in more than a year of Malaysian tumult over 1MDB, which was founded and overseen by Prime Minister Najib Razak. / AFP / MOHD RASFAN (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Najib Razak has tightened his grip on power in Kuala Lumpur © AFP

The 1MDB affair is also being investigated in Singapore, where two Swiss banks have been shut down over money-laundering lapses, and the US, where prosecutors have moved to seize property and fine art allegedly acquired with money siphoned off from the economic development fund.

Malaysia’s premier warmly welcomed the election of Donald Trump, a result he said was a sign that Americans wanted their country “less embroiled in foreign interventions”. The US civil forfeiture claim said that $681m had been transferred to the account of a Malaysian public official, whose biography matches that of Mr Najib.

Mr Lauber did not expect the US election to lead to diminished co-operation. “Until now, our co-operation with our US Department of Justice partners and in particular with Loretta Lynch [US attorney-general] has been excellent — whether in fighting terrorism, organised crime, economic crime or money laundering,” he said. “I am confident that we can continue our co-operation because there is always a mutual interest in assisting each other on huge cases like this one.”

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