The former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak appeared in court in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday morning where he was charged with corruption-related offences over his alleged involvement in the multibillion-dollar 1MBD corruption scandal.
In a stunning fall from grace, the former prime minister was charged with three counts of criminal breach of trust and one count of corruption in a prosecution led by attorney general Tommy Thomas. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Razak said: “I claim trial” in a barely audible voice as he stood in the dock at the high court in Kuala Lumpur. Prosecutors demanded 4m ringgit (nearly $1m) bail, but the judge granted it at 1m ringgit in cash ($250,000) and ordered Najib to surrender his two diplomatic passports.
Najib faces allegations that, between August 2011 and March 2015, 42m Malaysian ringgit ($10m) was transferred from SRC International, a 1MDB subsidiary, to his personal bank accounts. Each count carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. Whipping is also a penalty but Najib, 64, would be exempt because of his age. The charges also carry a fine, which would be no less than five times the value of the funds in question.
The former leader was arrested at his home on Tuesday. After being held overnight at the anti-corruption commission, Najib arrived at 8.20am at the court complex in Kuala Lumpur, wearing a dark blue suit and a red tie. Crowds jostled to catch a glance at the former leader as he was led to a sessions court. Some members of Najib’s UMNO party chanted and held up placards in solidarity.
Earlier, state news agency Bernama broadcast Najib’s convoy live as it moved slowly through morning rush-hour traffic from the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission’s offices in the administrative capital Putrajaya to the court.
Fahmi Reza, a Malaysian artist who was jailed last year for publishing a caricature of Najib looking like a clown, was among the throng of people that gathered outside the court.
“Finally we can hope to see some justice being served,” said Fahmi.
Convicted in the same court of charges that the artist continues to appeal, Fahmi noted how dramatically the tables in Malaysian politics have turned.
“I think this sends a really strong message to all politicians, including people in the current government, that you won’t get away,” he added.
The 1MDB corruption scandal, described as the biggest in Malaysia’s history, saw billions of dollars allegedly embezzled and lavishly spent around the globe, on luxury property, a private yacht, Hollywood films and extravagant shopping sprees.
Najib has consistently denied the charges, last week telling local news portal Malaysiakini that his trial would be a “test” for the Malaysian judiciary. “I believe in my innocence. Therefore, the only way I can clear my name is through a system that is fair and a system that is predicated on the rule of law,” he said, “Everybody [should have] a chance to prove themselves under the system.”
— Melissa Goh (@MelGohCNA) July 4, 2018
Hours after he was arrested on Tuesday, a video was posted on Najib’s Twitter account that appeared to be pre-recorded. It said: “To beloved Malaysians, if you see this message, this means that action has already been taken against me. I wish to apologise and seek forgiveness from Malaysians.”
Najib said Malaysians “deserve the best leadership” and that while he did his best he admitted “there were many weaknesses”.
In the video, he also sounded a warning to the current administration saying that “no one will be spared” from judgment, even “top leaders in government”.
“Everyone is equal before the law,” he said, “Not just in the world, but also judgment in the afterlife.”
The arrest and trial of the former prime minister follow a surprise electoral defeat in May, which brought his former mentor, 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, back to power. Mahathir had pledged to investigate the 1MDB scandal if he was elected.
An investigation into 1MDB by Najib’s government previously cleared him of any wrongdoing, but there was seemingly little room for a different outcome at the time.
Several political figures, including the deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, were removed from their posts after making critical remarks about Najib’s handling of the corruption allegations, while the government suspended the licence of one media organisation that rigorously reported the case.
The arrest of Najib is a stunning fall from grace for the former Malaysian leader who has ruled Malaysia since 2009, and is part of an investigation that is likely to take months.
It is unclear if the former first lady Rosmah Mansor – who is widely known and deplored for her extravagances, from Birkin bags to diamond-studded watches and tiaras – will also be arrested in connection with the scandal.
Najib and Rosmah have both been questioned by anti-graft investigators and are blacklisted from leaving the country.
Recent raids on several Najib’s properties in Kuala Lumpur revealed an extraordinary haul and peek into their lives, with authorities seizing cash and luxury goods, including hundreds of designer handbags and jewelry worth $273m.
The 1MDB probe has also drawn in Rosmah’s son, Hollywood movie producer Riza Aziz, who was questioned for anti-graft investigators for nine hours on Tuesday. He is expected to return for further questioning on Wednesday.
Riza is the co-founder of the Los Angeles based production company Red Granite Pictures, which has produced films such as the Wolf of Wall Street and Dumb and Dumber To. The US Department of Justice has previously accused the company of misappropriating money from 1MDB.
Riza has denied the claims, but in March it was revealed that his company agreed to pay the US government $60m to settle a civil lawsuit that sought to seize assets purchased with money allegedly stolen from 1MDB.
US prosecutors claimed that three films produced by Red Granite Pictures were financed by illicit 1MDB funds.
This story originally appeared in The Guardian. Image courtesy of Ahmad Yusni/EPA.