Najib 1MDB trial: Malaysia’s former PM sentenced to 12 years in jail and fined US$49 million, crushing comeback hopes

  • This is definitely not the end of the world,’ Najib said after judge granted him bail pending an appeal
  • The charges related to Najib’s role in some US$4.5 billion being looted from a state investment fund and siphoned through his personal accounts

A Malaysian court on Tuesday sentenced former prime minister Najib Razak to 12 years in jail and fined him 210 million ringgit (US$49.3 million) in the first of five criminal trials linking him to the multibillion-dollar 1MDB corruption scandal, dealing a major setback to his efforts to make a comeback to frontline politics.

Datuk Seri Najib Razak is pictured at Kuala Lumpur High Court as he leaves the building July 28, 2020. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
Datuk Seri Najib Razak is pictured at Kuala Lumpur High Court as he leaves the building July 28, 2020. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri/Malay Mail

The 67-year-old politician was granted bail by Justice Mohamad Nazlan Ghazali pending appeal.

“I am very disappointed by this decision … I will continue efforts to clear my name,” Najib told reporters on Tuesday evening. “This is definitely not the end of the world, there’s a process of appeal [and] we hope that we will be successful then.”

The judge delivered the sentence after finding Najib guilty of all seven charges. Along with one charge of abuse of power, Najib was fighting three charges of money laundering and three charges of criminal breach of trust.

The case involves some 42 million ringgit (US$9.8 million) that flowed from SRC International, a subsidiary of the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state fund, to his personal accounts.

Nazlan sentenced the former prime minister to 12 years’ jail and fined him 210 million ringgit for the abuse of power charge, 10 years’ jail for each of the criminal breach of trust charges and 10 years’ jail for each of the money laundering charges. The jail terms are to run concurrently.

In an oral statement to the court ahead of the sentencing, Najib said he was innocent and there was no “evidence or witnesses” that suggested he had pocketed the 42 million ringgit at the centre of the case.

Malaysia’s former PM sentenced to 12 years in jail and fined US$49 million
Malaysia’s former PM sentenced to 12 years in jail and fined US$49 million

He swore in the name of Allah that he had no knowledge of the funds, insisting: “I had no knowledge of the 42 million ringgit. Wallahu, Wabillahi, Watallahi.

Chief prosecutor V Sithambaram said: “This case tarnished the country as a kleptocracy. I don’t think Malaysians deserve that.”With the ruling, Najib is now disqualified from running as a candidate in snap elections that observers believe could take place as early as this year. He remains a key player in the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), a party propping up Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government.

The court ruling is a landmark moment in the years-long effort by anti-corruption activists to bring to justice those responsible for the plunder of 1MDB, which was founded and controlled by Najib during his 2009-2018 tenure as prime minister.

Najib, the oldest son of Malaysia’s revered second prime minister, the late Abdul Razak Hussein, is the country’s first prime minister to be convicted in a criminal court.

The current trial is regarded as the least complex of the five trials arising from the scandal. Two others are already under way.

“The verdict affirms the long-time accusations of corruption. It’s a vindication of all the hard work to bring this corruption to light,” local political observer Azmil Tayeb said.

Late on Monday, Najib pledged to take the case to the Court of Appeal, the country’s second-highest court, if he was found guilty. He said he was certain the Court of Appeal would hear the case, as prosecutors were likely to appeal if he was acquitted by Justice Nazlan.

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. Photo: dpa
Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. Photo: dpa

“Only the shining rays that is the rakyat’s [people’s] support all this while has given me the strength to rise up and fight, motivating me forward,” he wrote on Facebook. “I have not given up. Yes, we shall go the Court of Appeal next. I am ready.”During the trial, Najib’s defence team sought to pin blame on others, including the fugitive financier Low Taek Jho – better known as Jho Low. Other figures named included Nik Faisal Ariff Kamil, the former SRC International chief executive currently on the run, and Joanna Yu, a bank relationships manager who oversaw Najib’s personal bank account.

Najib’s defence claimed he was misled by these parties into believing the misappropriated funds in the account were political donations from the late Saudi king Abdullah Abdulaziz al-Saud.

Justice Nazlan excoriated this argument in his ruling.

“It is common in diplomacy to declare support to other countries. The accused merely took the word of Jho Low,” he said. “The accused could easily picked up his phone and call and verify with the government. Instead, the prime minister is content with what Jho Low said.”

He added, according to the news portal Malaysiakini: “Regardless of [which] segment of the Arab royalty [was involved] and the accused’s confidence in Jho Low, the accused failed to confirm on the [veracity of the] donation from king Abdullah [made the defence argument] improbable.”

Low, whose whereabouts remain unknown, has been named as a key player in the plot by both Malaysian and US authorities, although he has consistently denied any wrongdoing.Low claims the allegations were politically motivated by Mahathir Mohamad’s Pakatan Harapan administration, which took power after the 2018 elections before being toppled in February. He is subject to outstanding arrest warrants in Malaysia and neighbouring Singapore.Tuesday’s verdict followed last week’s US$3.9 billion settlement between the Perikatan Nasional government and Goldman Sachs over the investment bank’s role in raising funds for 1MDB. As part of the deal, Malaysia agreed to drop criminal charges against Goldman Sachs, which denies any wrongdoing.Najib was also ordered last week by a court to settle 1.69 billion ringgit(US$397.41 million) in unpaid taxes over seven years dating to his time in office.

Supporters of former Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak chant outside the Kuala Lumpur Courts Complex on July 28, 2020. Photo: Bloomberg
Supporters of former Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak chant outside the Kuala Lumpur Courts Complex on July 28, 2020. Photo: Bloomberg

Ahead of the verdict, rambunctious supporters gathered outside the Kuala Lumpur High Court in a show of support for Najib. Many wore blue shirts emblazoned with the words “Malu Apa Bossku?” (What’s there to be ashamed about, boss?).

Local media estimated some 3,000 people had gathered outside the court, raising concerns among netizens that the gathering could prove to be a potential coronavirus cluster.

Hundreds of supporters remained outside the court when the sentence was announced – nearly eight hours after proceedings began on Tuesday morning – with many chanting Najib’s name and his nickname “bossku”.

Local actor Hafiz Nafiah was among those in the crowd who said they had been mentally prepared for a guilty verdict.

“All the supporters here agree, I’m sure, that it’s just politically trumped up. This will go to [the] appeals court, and the judgment will be more realistic,” Hafiz told This Week in Asia.

Najib, wearing a tan suit, entered the courtroom alongside Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, a former deputy prime minister who faces separate corruption charges of his own. Other stalwarts from Umno were also in attendance.

This ruling will boost Muhyiddin’s popularity as it shows that the rule of law is upheld under his leadership

Awang Azman Awang Pawi, University of Malaya

Awang Azman Awang Pawi, a political scientist with the University of Malaya, said he believed Tuesday’s developments would benefit Prime Minister Muhyiddin, who defected from Pakatan Harapan earlier this year.

Expectations had been that he was eyeing a snap poll in the coming months to shore up his Perikatan Nasional’s two-seat parliamentary majority. But with Umno in control of the coalition, it was unclear if the ruling coalition would pick him – a member of the Bersatu party – as its prime ministerial candidate. Instead, speculation had been mounting suggesting Najib could make a shock comeback.

That is now impossible. Najib is allowed to retain his parliamentary seat while he appeals his conviction but cannot contest fresh polls without being fully acquitted. The appeal process in the Court of Appeal – and subsequently in the country’s highest court, the Federal Court – is likely to take years.

The prime minister in a late evening statement said his administration respected the court’s decision, and urged “all parties to continue to place their trust in the country’s independent judicial system”. He said the government also respected Najib’s right to appeal the verdict.

“This ruling will boost Muhyiddin’s popularity as it shows that the rule of law is upheld under his leadership,” Awang Azman said.

Lim Wei Jiet, a constitutional lawyer, suggested anti-corruption campaigners in the country should defer their celebrations for now.

“Najib can still appeal the decision to the Court of Appeal and Federal Court … it is a positive start for a revival of the rule of law in Malaysia, but it’s not the end of the story yet,” he said.

By : Tashny Sukumaran – SCMP

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