By N. Nantha, Hadi Azmi, Alfian Z.M. Tahir and Hariz Lee
Malaysian officials filed four criminal charges against former Prime Minister Najib Razak on Wednesday for criminal breach of trust and abuse of power in connection with the 1MDB scandal.
Attorney General Tommy Thomas filed the charges at Sessions Court in Kuala Lumpur. Najib arrived to cheers from supporters shortly after 8:00 a.m., clad in a blue suit and dark red necktie, having spent the night at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) after being arrested by anti-graft officials on Tuesday.
“It is put that you, between Aug. 17, 2011 and Feb. 8, 2012 … as the Prime Minister and Finance Minister of Malaysia, had used your position to solicit a bribe of 42 million ringgit (U.S. $10.4 million) for yourself when you were involved in the decision of Malaysian government to guarantee loans totaling 4 billion ringgit from the Retirement Fund Incorporated to SRC International Sdn Bhd,” read one charge.
SRC International is a former subsidiary of state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, set up by Najib in 2009 as a sovereign wealth fund ostensibly to pursue projects beneficial to Malaysians.
The charges were filed under Section 409 of the Malaysian Penal Code on criminal breach of trust and the nation’s Anti-Corruption Commission Act of 2009. If found guilty of all four, Najib could face up to 80 years in prison.
The case was immediately transferred to the High Court, where Najib entered a not guilty plea and was released on bail of one million ringgit (U.S. $247,115) and required to surrender two diplomatic passports.
High Court judge Sofian Abdul Razak (no relation) tentatively set February or March 2019 as the timeframe for a trial to begin.
Najib: a chance to ‘clear my name’
Speaking to reporters as he left the courtroom, Najib said he had expected to be charged “because it is what the new government wants.”
“If this is the price I have to pay after 42 years of service to the Malaysian people, I accept it. What I hope is that the judicial process is a process that is truly fair, following the rule of law. I’m confident in my innocence; this is the best chance I have to clear my name.”
Najib’s lead defense attorney Muhammad Shafee Abdullah told reporters his client was not worried about the trial “providing that he is given a fair shake at the trial, which we are sure, looking at the judge today … we are quite sure it’s going to be a fair trial.”
The judge granted a gag order after Shafee argued in court that his client was being tried in the media. “People have been making statements as though Najib is guilty,” Shafee told the court. “There should not be a discussion on the merits of [this] trial.”
“We will object strenuously,” Attorney General Tommy Thomas said of the gag order request. “The rest of the world is talking about it. The rest of the world will be commenting on the case and Malaysians will be keeping quiet,” he said.
Thomas later told reporters there would likely be more charges emanating from the 1MDB probe.
“SRC, I don’t know but 1MDB, certainly down the road. This whole thing is about 1MDB. You can expect MACC to investigate 1MDB, and let me state the obvious – when we use the word 1MDB – it is a shorthand statement to describe what happened in the past 4 to 5 years. There were discrete separate transactions over the 4 to 5-year period.”
Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, attended the court session Wednesday, as did the couple’s two adult children, Nooryana Najwa Najib and Mohd Norashman Najib.
Dozens of supporters of the former prime minister chanted “Viva Najib!” outside the court as he arrived shortly after 8:00 a.m.
“We believed that this is a selective prosecution and all the charges against him were made up. We are here to support Najib as a former president and prime minister of Malaysia,” Noor Hariri Mohd Noor, a youth leader from Najib’s UMNO party, told BenarNews.
The former titan of Malaysian politics was charged exactly eight weeks to the day that his ruling coalition tumbled in Malaysia’s general election. His Barisan Nasional coalition and its anchor party UMNO had never lost an election in the nation’s 60-year history.
In days that followed, new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s government barred the former first couple from leaving the country, searched their residences, and questioned Najib on how 42 million ringgit (about U.S. $10 million) from SRC International had ended up in his personal bank accounts.
Najib was twice summoned for questioning by the anti-corruption agency in May, and Rosmah was also called before the commission once.
Najib’s second trip to the MACC came days after police seized hundreds of boxes of designer handbags and 72 suitcases containing cash, jewelry and luxury items from properties linked to him, as part of an investigation into money stolen from 1MDB. Last week, police said those seized items were worth an estimated U.S. $273 million.
In a pre-taped audio posted on his official Facebook page after his arrest, the 64-year-old Najib said he was “not perfect.”
“I’m just a normal person,” he said. “But believe me, all these accusations made against me and my family are not all true.”
He described the 1MDB allegations as “just rumors, hearsay and slander.”
Earlier, on his Facebook page, Najib wrote that the luxury items seized in the police raids were gifts to his family from foreign heads of state.
According to court documents filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, 1MDB was used to satiate the ostentatious lifestyle of people with power over it between 2009 and 2014.
The 1MDB probe, which is independently being pursued in Switzerland, France and the United States, centers on allegations that Najib’s associates embezzled and laundered almost U.S. $4.5 billion from the state fund through the acquisition of real estate and other assets.
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 in the personal bank account of “Malaysia Official 1.”
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in December last year described it as “kleptocracy at its worst.”