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A SPECIAL multi-agency taskforce investigating Malaysia's scandal-ridden 1MDB - including allegations that nearly US$700 million of its monies were deposited into Prime Minister Najib Razak's personal bank accounts - has frozen six bank accounts and seized a number of related documents. The operation was launched even as opposition lawmakers called on Mr Najib to go on leave pending the outcome of the probe.
The taskforce, comprising the Attorney-General's Chambers, Bank Negara, the police and the anti-corruption commission said in a joint statement on Tuesday: "The order to freeze the six bank accounts belonging to those believed to be involved in this case was issued on July 6, 2015."
Documents relating to 17 accounts from two banks were seized to facilitate investigations; the papers relate to the banks' non-compliance of Bank Negara rules, said the statement, but did not give specifics.
1MDB, the state-owned strategic development company, has been the subject of numerous official probes for being RM42 billion (S$14.9 billion) in debt and allegedly mismanaged.
But recent reports by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and whistle-blower site Sarawak Report that government investigations had uncovered the diversion of nearly US$700 million from companies linked to 1MDB into Mr Najib's personal bank accounts had sent shock waves across the nation; Sarawak Report also reported that Attorney-General Abdul Gani Patail already knew this, but was dragging his feet.
The freezing of the accounts by the taskforce follows a raid on Friday of three 1MDB-related companies mentioned in the reports, prompting many to ask why the raid was conducted only after the exposé.
The WSJ, which Mr Najib has threatened to sue, has since uploaded documents that allegedly show that funds were wired to his accounts in a number of transactions. Two of the largest, US$620 million and US$61 million, originated from Tanore Finance Corp through the Singapore branch of Falcon Private Bank in March 2013, and were deposited into Mr Najib's account at AmBank. The account has since been terminated.
Mr Najib has continued to maintain that he "did not betray the people" and that "the truth will prevail".
But opposition lawmakers, social activists and the public have pointed out that, his continued presence as the country's chief executive and finance minister will make an independent probe well nigh impossible.
Opposition leader Wan Azizah Wan Ismail told reporters on Tuesday: "We cannot have the executive there because the Attorney-General is entrusted to this job by the prime minister." She expressed hope that a special parliamentary sitting would be called to debate the allegations.
Meanwhile, Mr Najib's most ardent critic, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, said in a blog posting on Tuesday that Mr Najib ought to resign in embarrassment. "In other nations, a scandal like this involving a leader would have seen him resign and apologising. But in Malaysia, there are those who defend the leader without reason, just to safeguard their positions."
Ironically, it was Dr Mahathir who had pushed for Mr Najib to take over from Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, his immediate successor who was later hounded out of office after the coalition Barisan Nasional lost four states and more parliamentary seats than expected in the 2008 general election.
For months now, Dr Mahathir has harangued Mr Najib over the operations of 1MDB and other issues. Mr Najib has maintained that Dr Mahathir and Sarawak Report are conducting a concerted campaign of political sabotage to unseat him; his supporters insist the allegations are "part of an international conspiracy to remove the present government", but have not explained why.
Former law minister Zaid Ibrahim also urged Mr Najib to resign but to redeem himself before he goes: "You must step down as prime minister because there is no way you can get out of this hole. Remaining in office will just exacerbate the country's problems and the people's sufferings."
He added in his blog that if Mr Najib chooses to dig in his heels, he would not be remembered honourably. "Nothing you do henceforth will make the people of this country trust you, and you will not be able to govern effectively in such a situation."
He suggested that Mr Najib resign by year's end - but not before helping the country to cut corruption and pushing through reforms that include amending the Official Secrets Act so it applies only to the protection of military secrets and state security, rather than to government contracts and financial dealings as well; the reforms should include requiring ministers and families to declare their assets and a law that bars the prime minister from holding another portfolio, especially that of finance.