Former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak was formally charged Wednesday with corruption linked to a multibillion-dollar financial scandal that contributed to his shock election defeat less than two months ago.
The first ex-premier in Malaysia to appear before a judge, Najib pleaded not guilty to three counts of criminal breach of trust and a separate charge that he abused his position to pocket 42 million ringgit ($10.4 million). Each charge could see him jailed for up to 20 years.
The unprecedented court appearance came the day after the 64-year-old was arrested at his luxury home by officers probing how billions of dollars of state funds disappeared on his watch.
In court, the former leader appeared tired and hung his head often during proceedings.
Allegations of massive corruption were a major factor behind the electoral earthquake in May that toppled Najib’s long-ruling coalition and ushered in a reformist alliance headed by his 92-year-old former mentor Mahathir Mohamad.
Wednesday’s court hearing was the latest step in a quick-moving investigation into alleged wrongdoing by Najib, his family and many of his close political and business allies.
“Najib is the first [former] prime minister ever to be charged in court in the history of Malaysia,” said Tian Chua, vice president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, a key political party in the current ruling coalition.
“It signals a new era where no one in public office will be immune from punitive action if they abuse power,” he added.
Strong prima facie case
Najib was expected to be freed on bail later on Wednesday after the court decided on a one million ringgit bond.
The former premier was also ordered to surrender his two Malaysian passports.
Attorney General Tommy Thomas, who leads a 12-member prosecution team, had requested bail of four million ringgit in cash, but Najib’s lawyer Muhammad Shafee insisted his client was “not a flight risk”.
The court set a tentative date for the trial, beginning in February 2019.
“We have a strong prima facie case which we intend to prove in the trial,” Thomas told reporters after the hearing.
Thomas had to move the venue of his press briefing to a different part of the building after Najib supporters heckled him and demanded that he speak in Malay, the country’s national language.
“As far as we are concerned we have been fair,” Thomas said.
“Why should [Najib supporters] suspect we will not give a fair trial?”
According to an investigation by The Wall Street Journal, $10.6 million originating from SRC International Sdn Bhd, an energy company that was originally a subsidiary of 1MDB, was transferred to Najib’s personal bank accounts, a fraction of hundreds of millions of dollars from 1MDB that was allegedly funnelled to him.
Najib and the fund deny any wrongdoing.
Since the election loss Najib has been banned from leaving the country.
“We pray Datuk Seri Najib gets a fair trial. It is a test from Allah,” the former leader’s daughter-in-law Nur Sharmila Shaheen told AFP, using an honorific title, adding her father-in-law was “calm”.
A press statement issued by Najib’s camp late on Tuesday said the impending charges and other investigations “are politically motivated” and motivated by “vengeance” under Mahathir.
It vowed that Najib “will contest these charges and clear his name in court”.
Najib and his allies are accused of plundering billions of dollars from the 1MDB to buy everything from US real estate to artworks.
Shortly after his downfall, a treasure trove of valuables was seized in raids on properties linked to Najib and his family – including cash, jewellery and luxury handbags – worth up to $273 million.
He and his luxury-loving wife Rosmah Mansor were questioned by investigators, as were his stepson Riza Aziz, whose firm produced the hit 2013 movie The Wolf of Wall Street, and his former deputy Zahid Hamidi.