by Franziska Laur
Canadian real estate firm sues for defamation
[English translation of the original German language article - Ungemach Für Manser Fond]
Basel. For nine whole years, Sakto, a Canadian real estate firm, has been aware of the accusations of money laundering leveled by the Bruno Manser Fund (BMF), but now its patience has apparently come to an end: yesterday the Canadians asked the Basel Civil Court to prohibit the further dissemination of 1,100 accusatory documents.
Two sub-aspects of the case were heard yesterday: whether Canadian or Swiss law should be applied and whether an urgent preliminary injunction should be handed down.
Both parties expressed confidence that they will prevail and said that they were glad to be able to make their case. The court will inform the parties of its judgment by mail. It can be assumed that the Sakto v. BMF case will be litigated for a long time to come.
Bruno Manser Fund in court
The mood yesterday in the Civil Court on Basel’s Bäumleingasse was rather jovial. Some two dozen friends and supporters of the Bruno Manser Fund (BMF) stood before Courtroom 2, chatting and waiting for the hearing to begin. And in the end the representatives of the human rights organization came together for a casual group photo. At stake are money, fame, and reputation, and ultimately even the BMF’s very survival.
A quick review: Beginning in 1984, Basel native Bruno Manser lived in the jungle of Borneo in Indonesia/Malaysia, where he helped the Penan ethnic group combat rainforest deforestation. In April 1990, he was expelled by the Malaysian government. Despite an entry ban and a bounty on his head, he returned to Malaysia’s Sarawak state in 2000, and since then he has been declared missing. The BMF is continuing his work.
In 2009, the BMF under Executive Director Lukas Straumann began accusing the Canadian real estate company Sakto of money laundering and corruption. Sakto’s founder is none other than Jamilah Taib, daughter of Abdul Taib Mahmud, who from 1981 to 2014 served as prime minister of Sarawak, where Manser lived with the Penan. And even though Taib Mahmud earned only 200,000 dollars a year, he has amassed a fortune worth billions. BMF and other NGOs accuse him of having abused his political position to award concessions for logging and plantations to family members and associates. They also accuse him of handing out government contracts in exchange for generous donations. And Sakto was allegedly set up exclusively using these potentate funds.
Sakto strikes back
Sakto tolerated the hits for nine years. But last August the company struck back. In a press release issued through the renowned Basel-based Vischer law firm, it announced that Sakto had requested a preliminary injunction against BMF before the Civil Court of Basel-Stadt in connection with damage to its reputation. The firm is seeking the deletion of 1,100 allegedly incriminatory documents on the internet.
The trigger was a judicial proceeding in Canada earlier this year in which BMF tried to force four financial institutions to turn over financial information on Sakto. As Handelszeitung reported, this proceeding boomeranged, with the judge handing down a ruling that was both devastating and costly for BMF. That proceeding in Ontario alone cost BMF some 600,000 francs. And should the proceedings continue for much longer, the costs could mount into the millions.
Nevertheless, the good cheer of BMF representatives remained unwavering yesterday. According to those present, Lukas Straumann is a first-rate historian who would never level charges without solid evidence. It is high time for all of this to finally be thoroughly aired in court, they said. There were two sub-aspects being considered by the court. On the one hand, whether Canadian or Swiss law applies. This is of significance since Canadian law has a limitation period of only two years, which means that 90 percent of the accusations would no longer be subject to prosecution.
The other issue is whether there is actual urgency about ordering the end of the campaign against Sakto. But the court did not hand down its judgment yesterday, choosing instead to serve it on the parties by mail.
Accusations are not customary law
Thomas Weibel, Sakto’s legal counsel, tried to show that Switzerland rather than Canada has jurisdiction. He also argued in favor of the question of urgency. Sakto, he said, has long sat by in the hope that the accusations would peter out for lack of evidence. That has not proved to be the case. But it is not possible, he said, to deduce a customary law from that and continue with the infringing acts.
Meanwhile, BMF’s attorney argued that Sakto had heard the accusations and failed to react for nine whole years. And now the matter is supposed to suddenly be extremely urgent. This is implausible, he said – especially since the intensity of the accusations has not increased. On the contrary, that intensity was the greatest during protest campaigns in Canada in 2011.
“An NGO is not above the law – it must accept responsibility for its words and actions,” Thomas Weibel told BaZ. He notes that this is not an attack on BMF. “Sakto simply wants BMF to withdraw its false and defamatory allegations from the public domain.”
[English translation of the original German language article - Ungemach Für Manser Fonds]