An extraordinary legal case is starting to unfold in the Swiss civil courts as the Canadian property giant SAKTO international brings a defamation suit against the NGO set up in the memory of Bruno Manser, a Basle born environmental activist who disappeared in Sarawak under mysterious circumstances in 2000 after campaigning against logging.
The Bruno Manser Fund (BMF) is well known in Malaysia having, like Sarawak Report, spent much of the past decade highlighting the vast international wealth of the Taib family, whose patriarch, the former Chief Minister and present Governor Abdul Taib Mahmud, ruled the state for decades with absolute power as its rainforests were logged out.
The logging was performed in the name of ‘development’. However, as everyone in Sarawak knows, the native landowners of those forests (whose rights were curbed and over-ruled) have suffered terribly in the process and are poorer than ever.
Hundreds of millions have meanwhile popped up in the possession of the various Taib family members in Malaysia and across the world, and for the past decade no NGO has been more vociferous than BMF in highlighting that fact.
Particularly powerful evidence points to the transfer of unexplained wealth into Taib family entities such as SAKTO in Canada, Sitehost in Australia, SAKTI in the US (now closed) and Ridgeford properties in the UK. Sarawak Report provided the early exposes tracing the formation of these companies, often working together with BMF to track whistleblowers such as the Californian real estate manager Ross Boyert who provided volumes of documentation proving Taib’s interest in SAKTI international’s multi-million dollar portfolio in the US.
Indeed, one of the documents obtained from Boyert show that in 1988 50% of the shares of SAKTI were beneficially owned by Taib, according to a unanimous agreement by the board of directors, who were all themselves more junior Taib family members. These included Taib’s college age kids at the time.
Another multi-million dollar company SAKTO was likewise set up by Taib’s children whilst still at college in Canada, together with Taib’s younger brother Onn Mahmud. The former chief minister first claimed that his children and family are all rich because they are clever compared to others, but eventually admitted to putting up the initial funds to start the company.
Those injections of cash amounted to tens of millions of dollars according to publicly available information, yet Taib has said he found the cash from a ‘gratuity’ provided by the government on his retirement as a federal minister.
At which point BMF began to lobby prosecutors, including those in Canada to open money-laundering investigations on behalf of the people of Sarawak who have been deprived of billions of missing dollars that have simply disappeared from the logging of their timber.
Frustrated at the lack of progress in Canada BMF was seeking to embark on a private prosecution into SAKTO and attempted to sue the company’s banks and accountants to obtain financial information that would disclose the origin of millions invested in the company, many of which can be clearly traced as having flowed through Taib family companies in Hong Kong and various off-shore centres.
However, in 2018 the NGO lost a preliminary case in an admittedly ground-breaking attempt for the NGO to gain access to financial records relating to a private company – something that would have assisted the private prosecution. The Canadian judge ruled that it would make a dramatic precedent for him to allow for a private criminal prosecution to gain access to bank records. Public prosecutors have the right to obtain search warrants, a legal instrument that is not available to private parties.
BMF had to pay costs, including those of SAKTO who had taken part in the case and whose lawyers had been allowed their own 6 hour cross examination of Director Lukas Straumann. At which point, apparently flush with their success in preventing an examination of the financial records they are determined to keep secret, SAKTO decided to launch its own case against BMF for alleged defamation by the NGO back in Switzerland.
Directors Jamilah Taib and husband Sean Murray first tried their own extreme measure, which was to attempt to get the Swiss court to grant an immediate injunction against everything ever published by the NGO about the Taib family for the past decade on the grounds of needing urgent relief from alleged defamation.
This time it was SAKTO who lost and SAKTO who had to pay BMF’s costs. However, earlier this year the Canadian couple elected to continue with their main defamation case against BMF for what they plainly hope will be ruinous damages against the fund and vindication in the process.
The couple’s Canadian law firm has meanwhile set up an attack site online, selectively showcasing ponts allegedly scored in their cross examination against BMF. The site claims that Straumann ‘admitted’ he has ‘no evidence’ that money has gone from Taib Mahmud into their family firm.
To the contrary, BMF and Sarawak Report both maintain that considerable evidence has been obtained that shows the opposite – namely that millions have been funelled from Taib into SAKTO. This is not least from the US arm of the family empire SAKTI, which was 50% owned by Taib as demonstrated, but was then taken over and sold by SAKTO, which is owned by Sean and Jamilah.
On the eve of his fight back in court we interviewed Lukas Strumann, who says BMF will not give into what he describes as legal bullying and other dirty tactics (including misleading donors that BMF’s motives are corrupt) as the NGO seeks to highlight kleptocracy in Sarawak:
SR: In this case what is SAKTO claiming about the evidence you presented to the Canadian court?
Lukas Straumann: They are not trying to disprove any of the facts they are just saying we are leading a false camapaign, that is all. They say we are lying but they are not trying to establish an alternative narrative, they are not providing any explanations or disprove any of the facts.
SR: Can you comment on what appears to be a pretty self-serving and selective summary of the court case provided by their lawyers, who have sponsored a highly unusual online campaign launced against BMF at the same time as they pursue their litigation against you?
Lukas Straumann: I was cross examined for six hours on 2,500 pages of evidence BMF had presented in their case so they pick out 6 or 7 points trying to create the impression I admitted we have no evidence whatsoever, this is rubbish of course. Obviously they are worried about materials presented in the case and that’s why they were picking on side issues – in first place to discredit [the US manager of SAKTI] Ross Boyert. They were hardly asking any questions about the main issue which was SAKTO in Canada, because we prepared and presented a very extensive report on SAKTO. At a certain point I asked their lawyer why don’t you ask any questions about SAKTO as that is what we are here to talk about? And she said effectively “Well, this is MY cross examination”.
Duncan Fraser who runs SAKTO’s law firm Noticia LLP is a friend of Jamilah’s and Sean’s and it is a very lucrative mandate. He boasts that he provides strategic advice on how to file legal cases, so it goes beyond the legal matters but also into how to fight back in terms of public relations, in terms of trying to discredit your opponent. So this is way beyond what a usual lawyer would do.
SR: Are we talking about so-called Reputation Management?
LS: Reputation management is one side, the other is Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation, what is called a SLAPP suit, which has become very popular in North America. Basically you start suing a critic and you make it very expensive for them and then you try to bankrupt them and force them to sign some kind of a settlement that says all they have said is untrue and the opposite is completely true, but we are not going to do that.
Ross Boyert provided us with a lot of very useful documents, for instance on the FBI building in Seattle which show that Taib’s 23 year old son bought the property for 17 million that his brother brought in another 5 million, so this is clear evidence of money being brought in [to the US] by Taib’s sons.
SR: Were they contesting the solid evidence of Taib money being invested in the US?”
LS: Basically they were trying to create the impression Boyert hadn’t provided anything useful, which is completely false. For instance, there is the document [see above] showing that Taib was himself the main beneficial shareholder of SAKTI and his siblings and sone were acting as nominees for him – that is on record in a document that has not been contested. It was an action by unanimous written consent of the board of SAKTI International in 1988 and it shows that 500 out of 1,000 shares 50% were held in trust for Abdul Taib Mahmud.
The story about SAKTI International is interesting of itself because later it was closed down in the US and who were the people who closed it down? It was SAKTO, so presumably the money from the sale of SAKTI ended up in Canada and was managed and administered by Jamilah Taib and Sean Murray, the current directors of SAKTO, so there is basically a connection and that is why they are worried about SAKTI, because they know there is a trail of money going back to SAKTO.
SR: If Sean and Jamilah had nothing to hide surely they could always make their company finances trasparent and prove their case?
LS: Interestingly, that is exactly what the court in Switzerland – the civil court here in Basle – said when SAKTO were trying to get an injuntion. That it would have been easy for SAKTO to prove that our allegations are wrong, which they didn’t do. For instance, the judge said, by employing an audit firm that would basically testify that our allegations are wrong and without legal foundation. They could do this without disclosing any financial details to the public, which they didn’t do.
SR: You originally attempted a goundbreaking case which failed, but how much did that rely on the evidence you had about Taib family money having emanated from Sarawak?
LS: We realised public prosecutors in Malaysia, Canada and the United Kingdom were not about to bring a case, so we decided to move to a private prosecution and in order to prosecute someone for money laundering you need access to detailed bank and financial records of transactions. So, we said OK we have to sue their banks to release their financial transactions and sue their auditors to release their financial statements, so we sued the banks and auditors not SAKTO. But the judge said look we cannot do this for a private prosecution because a criminal prosecution is something the state should do in the first place – we had tried to use a legal instrument, the so-called Norwich Pharmacal Order, which is quite prominent in civil issues, but the judge was not ready to grant it for a private prosecution. He said this [prosecution] is up to the state in the first place and anyone could come and try to get disclosure of private records here in Canada so we don’t want to open the floodgates.
The judge also said he did not look at the actual evidence in detail, yet now SAKTO are trying to present it as if the judge had examined all the evidence we filed and based his ruling on the merits of that evidence. However, the decision by the judge was clearly a strictly legal decision based on very narrow legal issues.
SR: The website set up to attack and debunk BMF repeatedly claims you admitted in court you have no evidence of money being transmitted from Taib in Sarawak to SAKTO. Is that true?
LS: They are trying to create the impression that I admitted under oath in court that BMF had no evidence whatsoever and that the Canadian court decided that we have no evidence and everything is based on conjecture and suspicion, which is completely untrue. To the contrary we have quite a strong body of evidence, which we are going to present in the main Swiss proceedings and it will be very interesting to see how the court now is going to judge on that.
SR: SAKTO have certainly not held back from attacking BMF in a number of ways at the same time as pursuing this litigation it seems. They seem to have a strange theory about the NGO’s motives for highlighting corruption in Sarawak in the memory of Bruno Manser?
LS: Yes, they are saying we have made huge profits from making corruption and money laundering allegations against them, and this is our motive for attacking this Canadian company supposedly completely unconnected with Sarawak, which is a ridiculous claim. They say we earned at least a million dollars. They have gone so far even as to write letters to BMF donors and to foundations here basically trying to create the impression there is something wrong in our finances here and there is some misconduct or fraudulent conduct going on. That letter, which was not signed by any individual, just ‘the SAKTO Corporation’ said BMF and myself don’t refrain from presenting false evidence in order to achieve our goals. We had to take legal steps to get them to refrain from making such allegations, which they have now stopped making in response to that action which we took. None of our donors have withdrawn as a result of their actions.
SR: Someone is clearly making a lot of money out of SAKTO on this?
We think they have spent $1 million on this case already.
SR: Can I ask how much it has cost you?
LS: Well it hasn’t cost us much yet, because we won the injunction so they had to pay us $180k in damages. We have run into some costs since, but obviously they thought they would win the first stage and we would have had to pay – they sent us a bill of over a 1/4 million CHF – which would have been devastating for us to pay, but because we won they have had to pay us, so now we are in a good position.
SR: It seems to have been bad advice to go for that injunction?
LS: Well it was definitely bad advice by the Canadian and Swiss lawyers who should have known that after 9 years you cannot claim it is urgent if we are just repeating the same statements. That was the main argument of the court which stated there was a lack of urgency. Basically, we have been making the same allegations since 2009/10 so how come you have waited 9 years.
SAKTO’s ridiculous claim was that they only found out that they were not doing anything wrong after I allegedly admitted in court that I had ‘no evidence’. So, they found out “oh! we are not doing anything wrong so let’s sue him”!
SR: For SAKTO to say you have no evidence or grounds to articulate suspicion in the public interest when we have a public official (Taib Mahmud) with decades of employment on a known salary in a place where billions in timber profits have gone apparently missing, whose family has invested hundreds of millions in Malaysia, Canada and elsewhere, surely that is the starting point and legitimate comment?
You are doing your best to connect some of the dots inbetween, that show the red flags that indicate what we know which is that the Taib family has unexplained wealth?
LS: Interestingly, the plaintiffs are saying we have nothing to do with Taib Mahmud, that is not us. We are a family firm, private investors living here in Canada. However, they themselves had to admit that SAKTO when it was founded was several Taib family members. Now suddenly the Murrays claim it was only themselves, so obviously they must have bought it – or presumably got it for free.
In the case of SAKTI in the US we can prove that 50% of the shares were held for Taib in the case of SAKTO we cannot prove that but we can prove they took over the management of a company whose largest shareholder was Taib. We know Canada has a very weak money laundering enforcement – that is widely known – and has very little transparency in terms of beneficial ownership of companies. It is a problem obviously.
BMF is due to file its defence against the SAKTO defamation case on behalf of shareholders Jamilah Taib and Sean Murray by the 21st of February. A full interview will be screened on the issue on Swiss TV’s late evening news show “10vor10” next week.