By Hadi Azmi and Radzi Razak
Najib Razak used his office to line his pockets with millions of dollars, the Malaysian government’s top prosecutor said Wednesday at the start of a landmark corruption trial against the ex-prime minister over charges linked to the 1MDB financial scandal.
Najib became the first ex-PM in Malaysia’s history to stand in the dock over criminal charges, as the first of a series of trials against him opened at the Kuala Lumpur High Court. He faces a raft of corruption charges associated with beleaguered 1Malaysia Development Berhad, a state investment fund he founded in 2009.
“[E]vidence will establish that the accused (Najib) at all material times, as an officer of a public body, to wit, as prime minister and minister of finance, used his office and/or position to obtain for himself a gratification of 42 million ringgit,” Attorney General Tommy Thomas said in his opening statement.
Najib went on trial in the first case after pleading not guilty to seven charges related to the transfer of 42 million ringgit (U.S. $10.3 million) from SRC International, a former subsidiary of 1MDB.
The attorney general began by stating that Najib had wielded “near absolute power” and control of the nation’s finances during nearly a decade as PM.
“The accused (Najib) during his entire period as prime minister, at which time these offenses were committed, simultaneously held the office of minister of finance, thereby combining maximum political power and control of the nation’s purse,” Thomas said.
Najib’s trial opened nearly 11 months after his ruling Barisan Nasional coalition was swept from power by the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance in the May 2018 general election, and 10 years to the day when he first became prime minister.
Najib wore a dark blue suit and purple tie during Wednesday’s courtroom session. His son, Norashman Najib, accompanied him to the courthouse.
The 1MDB affair, in which billions of dollars were allegedly looted from the state fund, was the scandal that brought about Najib’s fall and the rise of PH, which campaigned last year on a platform of cleaning up corruption in government. His former mentor-turned-nemesis, Mahathir Mohamad, led PH to victory and took over as prime minister.
“Not being satisfied with the hold of the twin positions of prime minister and minister of finance, the accused was also appointed chairman of the board of advisers of 1Malaysia Development Berhad (‘1MDB’) and adviser emeritus in its fully owned subsidiary,” Thomas said, referring to SRC International.
The attorney general accused Najib of usurping the boards of 1MDB and SRC International by controlling the financial affairs of both organizations.
‘Nothing more than a political speech’
Thomas, who is prosecuting the case, made his opening statement following a last-ditch effort by Najib’s defense team of 10 lawyers to postpone the trial that had been delayed for two months.
Earlier on Wednesday, the defense team, led by Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, filed a petition to delay the trial again. After a hearing that lasted more than three hours, High Court Judge Mohd Nazlan Mohd Ghazali dismissed the petition and ordered the trial to begin at once.
Speaking to reporters after court adjourned for the day, Shafee lambasted Thomas’s opening statement.
“Today we are just wasting our time,” he said. “It (the opening statement) is not enlightening to the court or to us. It is nothing more than a political speech.”
During the remainder of Wednesday’s courtroom deliberations, Thomas called only one witness, a government official who confirmed that SRC International was an established company in Malaysia. The defense was quiet during questioning.
The former prime minister is standing trial on three counts of criminal breach of trust, three counts of money laundering and one count of power tied to the transfer of SRC International funds. He could face decades in prison and fines totaling millions of dollars if convicted of all charges.
The judge ordered the trial to resume on April 15 and scheduled court dates through May 10.
Thomas said prosecutors would prove that Najib engaged in money laundering by receiving the 42 million ringgit between Dec. 24, 2014, and March 2, 2015, and transferring the funds to accounts held by or partners with SRC International.
In addition, prosecutors were going to present evidence of a credit card payment of $130,625 (533,196 ringgit) that was made at a Chanel luxury fashion store in Honolulu, Hawaii, in December 2014. On Christmas Eve that year, Najib golfed with then-U.S. President Barack Obama who vacationed in the Hawaiian Islands with his family during that holiday season.
Prosecutors said they also planned to present personal checks for renovation work at two of Najib’s homes, along with payments made to political parties aligned with Barisan Nasional that used some of the transferred funds.
Najib is scheduled to be in another court on Thursday for a hearing on appeals linked to other 1MDB charges. He faces a total of 42 charges tied to 1MDB’s loss of billions of dollars.
U.S. prosecutors contend that $4.5 billion (18.3 billion ringgit) was diverted from 1MDB into the bank accounts of Najib, his friends and family, in what they described as “kleptocracy at its worst.”
Jho Low yacht sold
In other news related to the 1MDB affair, Thomas announced that the government had auctioned off a yacht that authorities had confiscated last year from fugitive Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho (better known as Jho Low).
The Equanimity was sold to Genting Malaysia Bhd, a developer and casino resort operator for $126 million (514 million rinngit) – slightly more than half of the $250 million (1 billion ringgit) officials believe Low had paid for the yacht using 1MDB funds.
The sale was announced on Wednesday, the same day that Genting had completed a $1 billion bond sale to fund a gaming resort under construction along the Las Vegas strip, Reuters news agency reported.
The yacht was confiscated from Low as part of an international probe into allegations that he, along with Najib and others, had embezzled billions from 1MDB. Government officials in December charged Low and four others who have all fled the country with a total of 13 charges involving losses totaling $1.17 billion (4.85 ringgit).
In a statement issued by his lawyers, Low claimed the government had not followed the rule of law in selling the yacht and did not get the best possible sale price.
Ali Nufael in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.