By Hadi Azmi and Alfian Z.M. Tahir
Anti-graft officials on Tuesday arrested former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak as part of an investigation into corruption tied to a massive financial scandal, authorities announced, in a humiliating fall from power less than two months after a stunning electoral defeat.
Najib, 64, was to be charged in court at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday (local time), according to a statement from a task force investigating the alleged theft of billions from the state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
Officers arrived in the afternoon at Najib’s mansion in Kuala Lumpur and took him to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) headquarters in Putrajaya, where he was expected to spend the night under detention, a high-ranking official told BenarNews.
“The 1MDB special task force today confirmed that the former prime minister, Najib Razak, has been arrested at 2:35 p.m. involving SRC International,” the task force said in a statement, referring to an energy firm that was a former subsidiary of 1MDB, a fund established by Najib in 2009 to support economic development in Malaysia.
Najib is expected to be charged under Malaysia’s Anti-Money Laundering and Terrorism Financing Act linked to the SRC International case, the BenarNews source said. The state news agency Bernama quoted a source as saying that Najib would face more than 10 counts of committing criminal breach of trust.
In a pre-taped audio posted on his official Facebook page after his arrest, Najib asked for an apology from Malaysia’s new government.
“Admittedly there has been a lot of weaknesses,” Najib said. “Yes I am not perfect, I’m just a normal person. But believe me, all these accusations made against me and my family are not all true.”
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“Yes, our homes were ransacked for days. Yes, I was investigated and some items were confiscated. But all these are not conclusive. A lot of the news and photos are just rumors, hearsay and slander,” Najib said.
In the weeks since his Barisan Nasional coalition was swept out of power in the May 9 general election, Najib and his wife were barred by authorities from leaving the country.
Najib was twice summoned for questioning by MACC, and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, was called before the commission once. He also resigned as chief of the ruling bloc and its anchor party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).
MACC questioned Najib on how 2.6 billion ringgit (about U.S. $642.6 million) and 42 million ringgit (about U.S. $10 million) from SRC International had ended up in his personal bank accounts, where hundreds of millions of dollars from 1MDB had also allegedly landed.
The arrest came weeks after police raided a former office and residences linked to Najib and hauled off hundreds of boxes of designer handbags and dozens of suitcases containing cash, jewelry and luxury items. Police said the raids were part of an investigation into the 1MDB case.
Last week, police said that the jewelry, cash and other luxury goods that had been seized in the raids were worth an estimated U.S. $273 million. On his Facebook page, Najib maintained his innocence, saying the items were gifts to his family from foreign heads of state.
Najib, who was also the former finance minister, founded 1MDB as a sovereign wealth fund ostensibly to pursue projects beneficial to Malaysians. But, according to court documents filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, the fund was used instead to satiate the ostentatious lifestyle of people with power over it, between 2009 and 2014.
When U.S. prosecutors filed a civil forfeiture case related to 1MDB in July 2016, they described a breathtaking level of fraud in which more than $730 million of what seemed to be 1MDB money was rerouted in a complex maze of transactions before ultimately landing to the personal bank account of “Malaysia Official 1,” a veiled reference to Najib.
The U.S. Justice Department has described the 1MDB affair as the “worst kleptocracy scandal in recent times,” alleging that almost U.S. $4.5 billion from the state fund were embezzled and laundered through the acquisition of real estate and other assets.
“Unfortunately, sadly, tragically, a number of corrupt 1MDB officials treated this public trust as a personal bank account,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch told a news conference in 2016.
Najib, who has consistently denied any wrongdoing, said the money deposited into his bank accounts was a donation from a Saudi prince.
The former prime minister’s arrest came as the new government intensified its 1MDB probe.
On Monday, MACC said it froze 408 bank accounts believed to be linked to misappropriated 1MDB funds and questioned former Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi over claims he made in 2015 that he had met representatives of the Saudi royal family who had channeled funds into Najib’s bank accounts.
The frozen accounts involved almost U.S. $370 million and were linked to 81 individuals and 55 companies, the agency said.
Zahid, 65, appeared before the MACC on Monday over 1MDB, two days after he was elected president of UMNO, the once-powerful ruling party that headed the Barisan coalition and was formerly led by Najib.
The Pakatan Harapan coalition, led by Malaysia’s new prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, had won the general election on a plank of cleaning up alleged corruption in government and getting to the bottom of the 1MDB scandal.
Zahid’s statement before the commission came a week after the anti-corruption agency remanded Amhari Efendi Nazaruddin, a former Najib aide, and recorded his statement as part of the 1MDB probe.
On Tuesday, MACC also interviewed Najib’s stepson, Riza Aziz.
Red Granite Pictures, a company co-founded by Riza, agreed in March this year to pay the U.S. government $60 million to settle a lawsuit that alleged its movies, including “The Wolf of Wall Street,” were made using funds stolen from 1MDB, according to court documents.
Meanwhile, about 50 people gathered outside the MACC headquarters on Tuesday night in a show of solidarity for the embattled former leader.
Chanting “Long live, Najib,” the crowd lighted candles outside the building and questioned the need to put Najib in a jail cell overnight before pressing charges on Wednesday.
“What is the point of his arrest?” Lokman Noor Adam, the group’s leader, told his supporters.
“It’s aimed at breaking his spirit, push him to give up.”