Malaysia on Thursday downplayed a French probe into claims of corruption over a 1.1-billion-dollar submarine deal linked to Prime Minister Najib Razak, saying there was “no case” to answer.
The opposition welcomed the investigation and said the case was just the “tip of the iceberg” of corrupt defence contracts in Malaysia.
French judicial officials have confirmed to AFP that they opened a probe in March into the 2002 sale of two Scorpene submarines made by the French shipbuilder DCN.
The case was opened at the request of Malaysian rights group Suaram, which alleges DCN paid a commission of 114 million euros (150 million dollars) to a company called Perimekar.
Perimekar is linked to Abdul Razak Baginda, an associate of Najib. He was later acquitted on charges of abetting the 2006 murder of his mistress, Mongolian interpreter Altantuya Shaariibuu, in a case which captivated the nation.
“It is their right to investigate but for us, there is no case,” a spokesman from the prime minister’s office told AFP, maintaining the deal was free of graft and that Perimekar had not improperly benefited.
“This is not a new issue — it is a concerted and continued effort by the opposition to discredit the premier,” the spokesman said. “It is politically motivated.”
“The deal has always been politicised and associated with the Altantuya Shaariibuu murder case. Since they are not making any headway now, they are pursuing it from another angle,” he added.
He declined to say whether Malaysian officials would cooperate in the probe.
Najib, defence minister when the deal was brokered, has defended the submarines’ purchase and denied any involvement in Altantuya’s murder.
Two Malaysian policemen, from an elite unit that guards top ministers, were last year sentenced to death for killing Altantuya, whose body was blown up with military-grade explosives in a jungle clearing.
No motive was offered for Altantuya’s killing during the murder trial. Popular blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin has been charged with sedition after repeatedly linking Najib and his wife to the crime.
The opposition welcomed the French probe, saying the government has not been transparent on the submarine deal and that it was “alarming” that the French authorities had to investigate the case.
“It shows Malaysia was engaged in a dubious deal and as a result of that, a foreign country — where the submarines were bought from — is actually investigating it,” said Tian Chua from the lead opposition party Keadilan.
“There is a long list of (defence) scandals, this looks like just a tip of the iceberg,” he said.
Joseph Breham, a lawyer representing Suaram in France, told reporters in Malaysia Wednesday that the investigation was opened as part of an ongoing probe against DCN over other defence deals in Pakistan and Taiwan.
Breham said the Malaysian case was opened after French prosecutors found Perimekar was created only “a few months before” the submarine deal was inked and that the company had no experience in the submarine industry.
The case will proceed before a judge if prosecutors are satisfied with the probe, according to the lawyer, who added that Malaysian officials are not obliged to testify in the French court.
“The onus is on the Malaysian government to respond on an issue that we have not been able to get an answer,” Suaram director Cynthia Gabriel said.
The Malaysian government has said it did not pay any commission to Perimekar, but that the company has a six-year contract to provide support services for the submarines.
The first submarine was delivered last year, while the second is expected to arrive from France on May 31.