A Malaysian cabinet minister says Prime Minister Najib Razak was the mysterious unnamed official who the US Justice Department claimed took part in rampant looting of state funds.
The admission confirmed widespread suspicions that Mr Najib was “Malaysian Official 1” mentioned in a Justice Department lawsuit filed in July.
The lawsuit — part of US moves to seize more than $1 billion in allegedly ill-gotten assets — repeatedly fingered the official as someone conspiring to divert vast sums from state investment fund 1MDB.
1MDB, or 1Malaysia Development Berhad, was launched by Mr Najib in 2009 and closely overseen by him.
In an interview with the BBC, Malaysia’s Minister of Urban Well-Being, Housing and Local Government Abdul Rahman Dahlan admitted “Malaysian Official 1” was Mr Najib.
“It’s obvious that the so-called ‘Malaysian Official 1’ referred to by the US Justice Department is our Prime Minister,” he said in a subsequent clarifying statement.
Mr Rahman Dahlan, who also is communications director for the Prime Minister’s ruling coalition, did not address whether his leader committed wrongdoing, but he insisted Mr Najib was not a target of the US lawsuit.
Mr Najib has so far not commented on the identity of the unnamed official.
Allegations of a vast international scheme of embezzlement and money-laundering involving billions of dollars of 1MDB money began to emerge two years ago.
A Four Corners investigation in March revealed that Malaysia’s former attorney-general had planned to lay charges of misappropriation against Mr Najib shortly before he was sacked.
The story made headlines when the Four Corners crew was detained by police for trying to question the Prime Minister over the corruption scandal.
Calls for action continue despite crackdown on dissent
Last weekend, several hundred protesters demonstrated, demanding that “Malaysian Official 1” be identified and arrested.
Mr Najib, however, has shut down Malaysian investigations, clamped down on media reporting of the affair, and purged critics from his ruling party.
In its scathing lawsuit, the US Justice Department detailed how “Malaysian Official 1”, family members, and close associates diverted billions from the now-stricken fund.
The Justice Department has moved to seize assets including real estate in Beverly Hills, New York and London, artworks by Monet and Van Gogh, and a Bombardier jet that it alleges were purchased with money stolen from 1MDB.
It was not immediately clear why Mr Rahman Dahlan, a staunch defender of Mr Najib, had outed him.
But the news dominated headlines in Malaysia, and was a top-trending Twitter topic in the country.
Analysts warn the scandal could harm foreign investment in Malaysia, but Mr Najib has refused to give way.
Political experts see no sign yet that he will be ousted before the next elections, due by mid-2018, due to his long-ruling coalition’s firm control.