23 May 2024

Former Malaysian leader Najib Razak was found guilty Tuesday of corruption over the multi-billion-dollar 1MDB scandal that cost him his government, and could face decades in jail.

The ex-prime minister was convicted on all charges in his first trial related to the looting of sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad.

Billions of dollars were stolen from the investment vehicle and spent on everything from high-end real estate to pricey art, while investment bank Goldman Sachs also became embroiled in the scandal.

Anger at the looting played a large part in the shock loss of Najib’s long-ruling coalition in elections in 2018, and he was arrested and hit with dozens of charges following his defeat.

The verdict was a test of Malaysia’s rule of law. It came about five months after Najib’s scandal-plagued party returned to power as part of a coalition, which observers had feared could affect the outcome.

Najib is facing several 1MDB-linked trials and the first, which began almost 16 months ago, centred on the transfer of 42 million ringgit ($9.9 million) from a former unit of the fund into his bank accounts.

The 67-year-old had vehemently denied wrongdoing.

But Judge Mohamad Nazlan Mohamad Ghazali took apart all the arguments put forward by his defence, and found him guilty on the seven charges he faced.

“In conclusion, after considering all the evidence in this trial, I find the prosecution has successfully proven the case,” the judge told the Kuala Lumpur High Court.

Najib looked calm and bowed his head after the verdict was read. Outside court, hundreds of angry supporters chanted “Long life”.

– Abuse of power –

The charges were one of abuse of power, three of criminal breach of trust and three of money-laundering.

The counts of abuse of power and criminal breach of trust are punishable by up to 20 years in jail each, while the money-laundering charges are punishable by up to 15 years each.

It was not immediately clear whether sentence would be passed later Tuesday or at a later date. The 67-year-old will likely appeal and he may not be sent to jail immediately.

Najib had insisted he was ignorant of the transactions from the 1MDB unit, SRC International.

The defence team portrayed Najib as a victim and instead sought to paint financier Low Taek Jho, a key figure in the scandal who has been charged in the US and Malaysia, as the mastermind.

Low, whose whereabouts are unknown, maintains his innocence.

The judge however ruled that the idea Low had tricked Najib was “far-fetched”, and also dismissed the argument the ex-leader believed the money in his account was a donation from Saudi royalty.

The return of Najib’s party to power as part of a coalition in March followed the collapse of Mahathir Mohamad’s reformist administration.

Since then, 1MDB-linked charges were unexpectedly dropped against the ex-leader’s stepson Riza Aziz in exchange for him agreeing to return assets to Malaysia.

Money stolen from the investment fund was allegedly used to bankroll Riza’s Hollywood production company and fund the hit movie “The Wolf of Wall Street”, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio.

Prosecutors also dropped dozens of charges against Najib ally Musa Aman, the former leader of Sabah state.

But analysts said the conviction against Najib would boost confidence in the new government, headed by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, and in the justice system.

Muhyiddin will be “seen as putting country over politics, and gain support from those who wanted to see justice in case,” Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia expert from the University of Nottingham, told AFP.

There has been speculation a guilty verdict could destabilise the ruling coalition, which has a razor-thin majority in parliament, if Najib subsequently decides to withdraw the backing of those who still support him.

The amounts involved in Najib’s first case are small compared to those in his second and most significant trial, which centres on allegations he illicitly obtained more than $500 million.

Malaysia had charged Goldman Sachs and some current and former staff, claiming large amounts were stolen when the bank arranged bond issues for 1MDB.

But the two sides agreed to a $3.9 billion settlement last week in exchange for charges being dropped.