Claire Lucasle-Brown: British journalist claims Malaysian ruling is ‘political retaliation’
  • Leisha Chi Santorelli
  • BBC NewsCulture

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption, Sarawak Report founder Clare Lucasle-Brown is the sister-in-law of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

British journalist Clare Lucasle-Brown accused Malaysia of plotting “political revenge” over her reporting after a court jailed her in absentia.

The 64-year-old is appealing against his surprise conviction this week on charges of libel against Malaysian royalty.

The local magistrate’s court sentenced her to two years in prison after a one-day hearing.

Lucas Brown told the BBC he was being targeted because of his involvement in the multi-billion dollar 1MDB scandal.

The scandal involves $4.5 billion (£3.9 billion) being stolen from a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund set up by former prime minister Najib Razak and is considered the world’s biggest corruption case.

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

The Kuala Terengganu Magistrate’s Court on Wednesday found Lucas Brown guilty of criminally defaming Malaysia’s former Queen Noor Zahirah in his book, “Sarawak Report: The Inside Story of 1MDB Exposed.”

Lucasle-Brown said he was given no advance notice or opportunity to defend himself in court, and his lawyers have already asked a higher court to set aside the sentence, citing violations of the Criminal Procedure Act.

“I am concerned that this is malicious, politically motivated, and I see this as a vendetta against my public interest journalism,” she told the BBC. “I believe there are a lot of very powerful and wealthy people in Malaysia who feel a vendetta against me for exposing the corruption of a former prime minister. [Najib Razak]he is still popular, powerful and wealthy.

“And then just a couple of days later [he] I couldn’t get a pardon. [Malaysian] King should have served only a small portion of his sentence and released him, but this sentence was passed against me.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called the decision to jail Lucas Brown “outrageous” and called on Malaysia to quash the sentence and “end the harassment of the journalist over her critical reporting on the country’s 1MDB scandal, one of the biggest corruption cases in world history.”

“This harsh sentence will deter all journalists from investigating official corruption in Malaysia and pose a clear and immediate threat to press freedom in the country,” CPJ Senior Southeast Asia Director Sean Crispin said in a statement Friday.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption, Malaysia’s 13th King, Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin, completed his five-year rule in 2011. Sultanah Noor Zahirah is to his left, and Najib Razak’s wife Rosmah Mansour is behind them.

Defamation lawsuit

Malaysia is the world’s only rotational constitutional monarchy: the federal head of state changes every five years and, although his role is largely ceremonial, the monarch wields great cultural and political influence.

The oil-rich coastal state of Terengganu is home to one of Malaysia’s nine royal families. A Malay ruler is called a sultan and his wife is called a sultana.

Telangana Sultana Noor Zahirah, who was Malaysia’s queen from 2006 to 2011, filed two defamation lawsuits against Lucas Brown for allegedly implicating him in corrupt practices linked to 1MDB.

The first was a civil suit in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, which was dismissed by the High Court in October 2022. It was overturned on appeal and is still pending trial. The second was a suit in a local magistrate’s court, which she won.

Lucasle Brown said the book contained an identification error that was corrected in 2018. He has apologised for the error, but his lawyers argue that the error was not defamatory or criminally libelous.

“I am concerned that this event has been manipulated but I do not want to place the blame for this on Queen Sultana. She was understandably upset,” Lucasle-Brown told the BBC.

The BBC has contacted Sultana Noor Zahira and her lawyers for comment.

Najib’s sentence commuted

The former leader is currently serving a 12-year sentence but this week his sentence was halved by Malaysia’s Amnesty Board, sending a message that Southeast Asian leaders can act with impunity, said James Chin, professor of Asian studies at the University of Tasmania.

Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which led the ruling coalition that once ruled Malaysia, had sought a royal pardon after exhausting other legal options.

Image caption, Najib’s sentence was cut in half last month.

Lucas Brown told the BBC he found it hard to believe there was no link between Najib’s sentence reduction and his defamation conviction shortly afterwards.

“I have become a symbol in the eyes of people who are deeply outraged that Najib has been convicted of this crime.

“We can speculate, but I think it’s hard to come to any conclusion other than that it’s all related to this 1MDB affair.”

Najib’s lawyers are also reportedly trying to have the Netflix documentary about the 1MDB scandal, “Man On The Run,” removed for being “extrajudicial and derogatory.”

A Netflix spokesman said the company would not comment on the matter.

Interpol’s involvement

Lucasle Brown is also concerned that the Terengganu Magistrate’s Court’s ruling may affect her ability to travel freely.

Malaysian law enforcement officials have twice applied for Interpol red notices against Lucas Brown on charges related to the 1MDB reporting, but Interpol has rejected both previous applications, Brown said.

It is unclear whether Malaysian authorities will again pursue an Interpol red notice to arrest Brown. The Kuala Terengganu Magistrate’s Court did not immediately respond to the BBC’s request for comment.

Lucasle-Brown has approached the UK government and a range of non-governmental organisations, including CPJ and Index on Censorship, for support.

Sarawak-born Lucas Brown has two adult sons with her husband Andrew Brown, a media strategist and former journalist who is the brother of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

She founded the investigative website Sarawak Report in 2010 and made a name for herself as a journalist and environmental activist focusing on corruption in the lucrative palm oil trade.

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

“I will just carry on,” she said. “I am just one of many journalists working to support the right of journalists to carry out their job of communicating information in the public interest to a wider audience.”

Image source, Claire Lucasle Brown

Image caption, Malaysian police issued an arrest warrant for Claire Lucasle-Brown in 2021, but Interpol has denied it twice so far.

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