By Lex Radz and Hadi Azmi
Malaysia’s ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak will face trial Feb. 12, 2019, for criminal breach of trust, abuse of power and money laundering, a judge ruled Friday while dismissing an application from the former leader for a gag order on the news media.
The country has enough existing laws to ensure that the so-called “trial by media” would not happen, High Court Judge Mohamad Nazlan Mohamad Ghazali said as he issued his ruling on the petition to bar journalists from discussing the merits of the charges against Najib.
“In my judgment in this case, freedom of speech takes precedence,” he said after hearing arguments from Najib’s attorneys and prosecutors. “The gag order is unjustified as it is superfluous.”
Najib, 65, and his wife, Rosmah, have been barred from leaving and residences linked to them have been raided since his coalition party’s stunning defeat in May. During the raid, police seized jewelry, cash and luxury handbags with an estimated value of up to U.S. $273 million.
The charges against Najib stemmed from a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal that has engulfed 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state investment fund he founded to spur economic development.
Najib, who is free on bail, faces seven charges after prosecutors on Wednesday lodged money laundering charges. All of the charges so far involve allegations that 42 million ringgit ($10.3 million) were illegally funneled electronically into his private bank accounts from SRC International, a former 1MDB subsidiary.
The amount involved in those charges were minuscule compared to $4.5 billion that U.S. prosecutors allege were stolen from 1MDB and diverted through acquisitions of real estate, artwork and luxury properties by Najib and his associates.
Najib has denied all the charges. He faces years in prison if found guilty.
Along with announcing the start date, Judge Mohamad gave prosecutors until March 29, 2019, to present their case.