Former Philippines steel chief charged with embezzlement

AFP , Kuala Lumpur

Wed, Feb 11, 2004 - Page 5

The former head of troubled steel giant Perwaja was charged yesterday with fraud after an eight-year investigation by anti-corruption authorities into Malaysia's biggest financial scandal.

Prosecutors charged Eric Chia with criminal breach of trust for allegedly embezzling 76.4 million ringgit (US$20.1 million) from the Perwaja Rolling Mill and Development steel company in 1994, when he was then managing director.

Chia, 71, who was detained on Monday, pleaded not guilty to the charge and vowed to reporters: "I will fight until the end. I leave it to God to judge."

Lawyers said Chia faces up to 20 years in jail if convicted.

Judge Akhtar Tahir set the trial for August and granted Chia bail of 2 million ringgit. His passport was also surrendered to the court.

The charge followed an investigation that began in 1996 into millions of dollars in losses suffered by the steel giant.

Perwaja, which processes iron ore, was the cornerstone of Malaysia's industrialization drive begun by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad in the early 1980s.

But in 1996, parliament was told that Perwaja was insolvent with losses totalling 2.9 billion ringgit, and the government ordered a probe into the company's finances that would eventually involve 50 witnesses.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who took over from Mahathir last October and has made an anti-corruption drive the center-piece of his premiership, said: "If investigations show that corruption had taken place, the law will have to take its course."

Asked if he was caught off-guard by the arrest, Chia said, "It was a surprise when they stopped me on the road when I was buying food. They should have arrested me when I was at home," he said.

Chia said that he was prepared to face the court to clear his name.

"I have been waiting for this all this while. I am prepared to go through it," he said.

Chia said he had been mandated by Mahathir to revitalize the company when it ran into financial problems in 1998.

"I was asked to do a national service. Perwaja was at that time already bankrupt," he said.

Lim Kit Siang, chairman of the opposition Democratic Action Party, said that the Perwaja issue was undoubtedly the biggest financial scandal in Malaysia and called for a royal commission to investigate the firm's losses.