ABC reporter Linton Besser has revealed the frightening, frustrating, and at times “comical”, details of how he and cameraman Louie Eroglu came to be arrested, detained and threatened with charges while working on a Four Corners investigation in Malaysia.
Besser and Eroglu were arrested on Saturday after trying to question Prime Minister Najib Razak about a corruption scandal.
Yesterday they were threatened with charges, but the charges were abruptly dropped and the pair were escorted out of the country.
Now in Singapore, Besser shared his experience with PM’s Mark Colvin:
Colvin: Now you’ve been accused of crossing some lines (at the PM’s press conference) or breaking some rules. Were you aware of crossing any lines, any cordons, were there any rules that had been outlined to you that you broke?
Besser: Absolutely none, and that is why initially it was so disturbing when we were told we were going to be charged with a criminal offence, because as you’d expect, we have vision of this incident and it’s incontrovertible and there is absolutely no police cordon.
We have audio. There are no instructions given.
What did you ask him?
I asked him how he could explain or whether he could explain the hundreds of millions of dollars that have flowed into his personal bank accounts in recent years.
How did he react?
He initially looked at me when I introduced myself and then he continued walking and ignored me.
So it was a mute response?
You could put it that way, from him anyway.
And what about his entourage?
Well I was immediately surrounded by police and Malaysian intelligence, special branch operatives, basically detained on the spot, taken out of the area in which I was standing.
Louie Eroglu, our cinematographer, was then also detained and brought to where I was, because we had been separated in the kind of crush in the crowd.
And it kind of went on from there.
The police were very upset with us because of course they had been embarrassed that a foreign journalist had been able to ask a question.
Anyway, we had our passports examined, our details taken. They took photos of every form of ID we had in our wallet I think.
And then the superintendent said to us, “Look, if you go quietly it’s OK. Get in your car and go”. So we did.
And we got in our van. We didn’t actually have a hotel booking so we, having had a little fright, we thought it might be prudent to get on the first flight out of Sarawak.
We tried that, there were no seats available on the last flight out.
So we tried to find a hotel, but as we were pulling up to the first hotel we were going to try, we were pulled over by an unmarked car and four or five police pulled us down from the van and questioned us in the lobby of the hotel and then told us that we were going to be placed under arrest.
How long were you detained?
Look I can’t quite remember, but it’s been reported as six hours, that sounds about right to me.
And then you had this period when you were not sure whether you would be able to get out of the country — you might be charged?
Yeah, we had our passports confiscated, that’s right. And so I think we got to bed that night at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning.
We didn’t have any passports. I think this was, so this must have been Sunday.
And then the next event was very strange because then we get some good news from our lawyer who tells us that the local police want to meet us to return our passports.
So we thought, great. We packed up; we got ready to leave Sarawak on the next available flight.
And strangely, it was quite comical. The police in their Hawaiian shirts decided the facetious place to do this was the pool deck of our hotel.
So we all sat around garden furniture as they formally handed back our passports. But then they said to us, “You can’t leave, you’re still on police bail,” which was confusing.
We didn’t know for what purpose they’d returned our passports.
And eventually you got out. Have you got the material that you need to make this Four Corners program?
We haven’t lost any material. So we’re here in Singapore planning our next moves, but we intend to continue investigating the story.
And you obviously will not be able to go back into Malaysia. Are you coming back to Australia now?
We’re still planning it, but I think I won’t be back for a few more days yet actually. Although, just on your first point, it’s not clear to me that I won’t be allowed back into Malaysia.
It’s been widely reported that we’ve been deported by Malaysian authorities and indeed we were whisked through airport and immigration and customs by uniformed police.
And even all the way to our seats on the plane where we were photographed by a very nice police officer … but at no point were we told we were being deported.
Our passports don’t say we’ve been deported. We were never given a piece of paper to say that that was the case.
I understand that Malaysian authorities or local government authorities in Sarawak are now saying that that is the case but we’re none the wiser