Former Malaysian leader Najib Razak’s chief lawyer was arrested and charged with money laundering Thursday, as authorities intensified a crackdown on corruption linked to the previous government.
Shafee Abdullah, 66, one of the country’s most prominent lawyers, led Najib’s legal team when the former prime minister was charged for his role in a multi-billion dollar financial scandal involving state fund 1MDB.
Najib denies accusations that he oversaw the theft of billions of dollars – but the financial scandal was a key factor in his shock election defeat in May to a disparate opposition led by his former mentor Mahathir Mohamad, 93.
Shafee was slapped with four money laundering charges at the Sessions Court, where he pleaded not guilty and was released on bail. He was arrested early Thursday at an airport where he was scheduled to board a domestic flight for a court case, an officer of the anti-corruption commission said.
He was accused of receiving into his bank accounts two cheques from Najib totalling 9.5 million ringgit ($2.3 million), one deposited in 2013 and the other in 2014.
Both checks were “proceeds of unlawful activity,” according to the charge sheet. The charges also involved Shafee omitting the money in his income tax returns for those years.
If convicted on all charges, he could face fines and up to 40 years in prison.
State prosecutor Gopal Sri Ram told reporters the charges arose from the anti-corruption commission’s investigation into the 1MDB scandal.
Shafee called the charges part of a “political vendetta”.
But the state prosecutor said: “This is a serious offence. There is no politics in this, the accused is not a politician.”
Mahathir’s government has embarked on an anti-corruption campaign since taking power, running after several former government linked individuals.
It has gained custody of a luxury yacht believed bought with stolen 1MDB funds by fugitive Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho, who is at the centre of the scandal.