(Bloomberg) -- The motorized hang glider appeared in the sky over Borneo, made a few turns above the sprawling compound of one of Malaysia’s richest families, then plunked down nearby.

Piloting the glider was Bruno Manser, a wiry Swiss activist with John Lennon glasses. He wanted to meet the family’s patriarch — the powerful politician Taib Mahmud — who Manser had long accused of perpetrating a vast environmental swindle.

Instead, Manser was arrested and deported to Switzerland. It was the last of his increasingly desperate attempts to train the world’s eyes on the island’s deforestation and what he claimed was Taib’s involvement. A year later he returned to Borneo, set off on foot into the jungle, and vanished.

More than two decades later, the fight Manser started is likely just weeks away from a conclusion of sorts. And this final act, which has been unfolding in a courtroom in Basel, Switzerland, might leave a lasting impact on the mountainous country half a world away from Malaysia.

Locked in this legal battle are the Bruno Manser Fund, a non-profit the activist founded, and Sakto Corp., a Canadian real estate company controlled by Taib’s daughter and her husband.

According to BMF, Taib illegally enriched himself and his family members from the felling of Borneo rainforests. Taib, who died this month at 87, long denied the allegations. BMF has produced a trove of documents purporting to show that Sakto played a part in laundering some of those proceeds. If everyone would just connect the dots, BMF says, they’d see it, too.

Lawyers for Sakto say the accusations are unfounded. They say BMF has waged a years-long, kitchen-sink assault based on allegations that courts, police and regulators in several countries have dismissed or declined to investigate. The absence of a criminal conviction shows the accusations are untrue and therefore defamatory, Sakto says. It sued BMF to end this campaign — once and for all. 

The verdict will be an important decision for Switzerland, home to more than $2 trillion of global fortunes. Its privacy-focused courts and laws already make it hard to hold the rich and powerful to account. If BMF loses, it may make Switzerland a venue of choice for people who keep wealth there and are looking to silence critics with defamation lawsuits, known as SLAPPs, according to media law experts. They said it will deter other journalists and activists from scrutinizing financial dealings that involve Swiss wealth.

Sakto dismisses those suggestions, saying its lawsuit is legitimate, not a means to intimidate.

“If the defamation claim were to succeed, it could be relied upon by corporations and multinationals around the world” with ties to Switzerland, says Annalisa Ciampi, a professor of international law at the University of Verona and a former United Nations rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association. “But the judges know that and I hope will bear that in mind.”

Carpenter’s Son

Taib wasn’t a party in the lawsuit but still looms over it. Born in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, the son of a carpenter studied law and then quickly gained a spot in Malaysia’s political elite. From 1981, he served as Sarawak’s top political executive for 33 years. 

During those decades logging companies felled so much rainforest that Sarawak for a period became the world’s top exporter of hardwood timber. Millions of hectares of some of the world’s oldest forests were partially or completely logged, harming or eradicating entire ecosystems and displacing thousands of people from indigenous communities who’d lived there for generations. 

During his years in power, Taib became very wealthy. Court documents filed in the early 2010s revealed his family owned assets worth more than $1 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, including interests in dozens of companies, oil palm land, and hotels and office buildings in four countries. 

BMF has submitted documents to the Swiss court alleging this fortune can’t be squared with Taib’s earnings as a public official, which are documented in public filings. Sakto’s lawyers say BMF’s calculations are irrelevant because Taib has never been found guilty of wrongdoing.

In his 2001 book, Timber Booms and Institutional Breakdown in Southeast Asia, University of California, Los Angeles, professor Michael Ross wrote that Taib used his power to grant timber concessions and other forms of state patronage to “retain uninterrupted control of the government.” Among the beneficiaries were companies in which his family members held shares, Bloomberg News has reported. 

“Taib and his relatives are widely thought to extract a percentage from most major commercial contracts – including those for logging – awarded in the state,” US officials noted in a 2006 State Department cable later published by WikiLeaks.

But many in Sarawak brush off allegations of self-enrichment and instead credit Taib with building roads, power lines and other infrastructure. Taib had denied he acted improperly and said he had recused himself from contract decisions that involved family members. He was never charged with a crime. Scrutiny by Malaysian anti-corruption officials never yielded charges. And Taib was hardly the only Southeast Asian politician accused of using political influence for personal gain.

Still, the logging drew global condemnation from people including Al Gore and King Charles III, then the Prince of Wales. Another was Manser, a young Swiss shepherd who’d decamped to Sarawak in 1984 to live with indigenous forest dwellers and became one of Taib’s most vocal critics.

“Taib Mahmud is personally responsible for nearly the whole area of the rainforests of Sarawak becoming one big field of destruction in the matter of one generation,” Manser told a reporter in 2000. Shortly afterward, Manser returned to Borneo and ventured into the rainforest to meet friends. He never arrived. Subsequent searches turned up no trace. Nobody’s been accused of wrongdoing in relation to his disappearance, and there’s no evidence that Taib was involved. In 2005, Manser was declared legally dead.

Mock Tribunal

The year before, BMF had hired Lukas Straumann, an environmental historian, as executive director. Looking to carry on Manser’s work, Straumann decided to follow Taib’s money. Reasoning that the politician was protected in Malaysia, Straumann began digging abroad.

BMF soon began publishing reports alleging Taib had laundered illicit proceeds using companies overseas. One focal point was Sakto, a real estate company owned by Taib’s daughter, Jamilah Murray, and her husband Sean Murray. It owns five properties in Ottawa worth about $275 million, according to an estimate based on publicly available data and peer valuations compiled by Bloomberg News.

The secret of its success “was a continuous capital influx” from the Taib family, BMF wrote in 2017. 

BMF prodded authorities and officials in Malaysia, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, UK and the US to probe the family. It published myriad social media posts about Sakto and its owners. It staged a protest outside the Murrays’ Ottawa home. In August, a day before a hearing in the Swiss court case, BMF organized a mock tribunal in Basel that singled out Jamilah as an owner of a company allegedly used to park stolen money.

BMF’s petitions didn’t result in charges. So in 2017, BMF sued Royal Bank of Canada, Toronto-Dominion Bank and two other firms, in an Ontario court, to force the disclosure of confidential financial information about Sakto. BMF’s accusations were “serious,” the judge wrote in his 2018 ruling, but the links between Sakto and “the alleged corruption of Mr. Taib in Malaysia depend on conjecture and suspicion more than evidence.” The case was dismissed.

Months later, Sakto filed a complaint against BMF for defamation in Basel, where the non-profit is based. It demanded BMF retract hundreds of reports and blog posts, and that it be barred from suggesting Sakto and its officers engage in money laundering or belong to the “tropical timber mafia.”

“The Basel Court has all the evidence and arguments necessary to adjudicate this claim,” Sakto’s lawyers told Bloomberg News. “They are wrong, but it appears that nothing will change their minds – not facts, not the police, and not the courts.” They say Taib never was a shareholder or investor in Sakto.

Sakto also filed a complaint, which it says it later withdrew, alleging Straumann committed fraud. Its lawyers sent letters to BMF’s donors and board members, and to Swiss authorities, suggesting the non-profit misled its backers and abused its NGO status. Sakto listed these accusations on a public website — thefactsmatter.ca.

The Basel prosecutor’s office declined to comment on the case, citing case confidentiality and privacy principles.

BMF, which disputes Sakto’s allegations, remains unbowed. “We defend the truth,” Straumann says. “We shouldn’t be afraid of telling the truth.”


To BMF, the lawsuit is a textbook SLAPP case. Short for “strategic litigation against public participation,” the term describes baseless or exaggerated lawsuits, generally filed by powerful individuals or entities against less powerful critics. They aim to suppress legitimate public debate with threats of expensive legal proceedings.

Justin Borg-Barthet, a law professor at the University of Aberdeen and head of its Anti-SLAPP Research Hub, says the breadth of Sakto’s efforts beyond the defamation suit — the personal complaint against Straumann; the letters to donors, board members and Swiss authorities; the public website — is characteristic of SLAPP cases.

“This lawsuit has substantial merit and was brought to stop a defamatory campaign,” Sakto’s lawyers told Bloomberg News. “We are confident that the Court will agree that this action is not a SLAPP, and deal with the claim on its merits.”

A 2020 European Commission study said SLAPPs are “increasingly used” across European Union member states. In the UK, courts have in recent years handled many high-profile defamation cases brought by wealthy Russians against their critics. Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called it a form of “lawfare.”

EU lawmakers recently reached a deal on new anti-SLAPP legislation to bolster protections for those reporting in the public interest. The UK, which left the EU in 2020, passed a law last year that included an anti-SLAPP provision, and is considering additional measures.

Switzerland, which values its financial and diplomatic independence, isn’t an EU member. The country hasn’t moved apace on SLAPP legislation, says Bertil Cottier, a communication law professor at University of Lugano and chairman of the Swiss chapter of Reporters Without Borders. The government created a committee last year to look into the matter, but it’s unclear when it will come to a conclusion, he says.

A victory for Sakto would send a bad signal for NGOs trying to scrutinize wealth held in Switzerland, Cottier says. The University of Aberdeen’s Borg-Barthet agrees.

“There’s a risk that Switzerland becomes a hub” for such cases, he says.

That’s partly because Switzerland has an agreement with other European countries that can allow for enforcement of civil judgments across borders in some circumstances, University of Verona’s Ciampi says. Still, there are limits to how much of a hub it could become, the legal experts say, as cases with no ties to Switzerland wouldn’t be brought there.

Cottier also stresses that the right to defend one’s reputation in court is a fundamental principle of democracy. “You need to find the balance between this right of have your case heard in court, and the abuse of that right,” he says.

In August, a UN special rapporteur expressed concern about the possibility of Sakto’s case being allowed to proceed.

A Swiss official responded that the government doesn’t meddle in court matters, and that the local legal system doesn’t tolerate abuse of legal rights.

The rapporteur also criticized Sakto’s law firm for “enabling and exacerbating the alleged persecution” of the NGO. Sakto’s lawyers reject the criticism, pointing out that the rapporteur didn’t weigh in on the merits of the allegations.

Straumann says BMF has spent more than $650,000 on its defense. Defamation litigation “is what you can do to really break people,” he says.

Charlie Holt, legal counsel for Greenpeace, argues the case has helped galvanize Switzerland’s civil society. Last year, a group of organizations including Greenpeace created a national alliance against SLAPPs.

In that sense, says Holt, whatever the outcome of the lawsuit, Sakto’s effort “has backfired.”

--With assistance from Pui Gwen Yeung.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.