KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — A Malaysian opposition politician who has strongly criticized financial scandals involving Prime Minister Najib Razak was charged with corruption Thursday but vowed to fight on.
The prosecution of Lim Guan Eng, chief minister of northern Penang state, has sparked accusations of a witch hunt by the government, which itself faces allegations of massive corruption in a multibillion-dollar scandal involving a state investment fund.
His lawyer, Gobind Singh Deo, said Lim was charged with abusing his power by purchasing a house in Penang at below market value after approving the conversion of a piece of agricultural land for commercial purposes to a company owned by the house seller.
Lim has led Penang, one of three states run by the opposition, since 2008 and his possible jailing is a blow to an already weakened opposition.
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Singh said Lim, who pleaded not guilty, faces up to 20 years in jail. He said businesswoman Phang Li Khoon, who sold the house to Lim, was charged with abetting him. Both are free on bail.
Lim has a record of clean government in Penang, introducing open tenders for contracts and publicly declaring his personal assets. He bought the house last year for 2.8 million ringgit ($700,000) and said it was an open transaction between a willing buyer and a willing seller.
National ruling party lawmakers have said the house is worth at least double that amount, and the anti-graft agency has been probing the sale since early this year.
A defiant Lim said the charges were designed to crush his political career but that he would not be bowed. He said the house seller didn’t benefit because the land conversion was later rejected by a local council.
“If that is corrupt practice even though the other party has not received any benefits, I want to ask, what about those who received billions and billions of ringgit in their personal bank accounts?” Lim said, in a reference to Najib.
Opposition leaders slammed Lim’s arrest as a double standard, noting that no one has been charged over the billions of dollars missing from state investment fund 1MDB.
Lawmaker Charles Santiago said Lim’s arrest was an “act of intimidation and abuse.”
Lim’s father, Lim Kit Siang, said his son’s prosecution came just days after a purge at the anti-corruption agency, with the removal of its top two officials.
He said the charges are the latest attempt to destroy the opposition. Lim’s party is part of a three-member opposition group which has been weakened by infighting.
Najib has faced accusations of corruption and mismanagement over allegations that nearly $700 million was channeled into his personal bank accounts from 1MDB.
Najib has denied the money came from the fund. The government cleared him in January, saying the money was a donation from the Saudi royal family and that Najib had returned most of it. The explanation was met with widespread skepticism.
1MDB, which Najib started in 2009, is mired in debt and is being investigated in several countries over alleged embezzlement. A Malaysian parliamentary inquiry recently found massive unexplained payments and called for a police investigation of the fund’s former head.