By Hadi Azmi and N. Nantha
Malaysian police have hauled jewelry, handbags, cash and documents out of residences and offices linked to ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak as part of investigations into a financial scandal tied to state fund 1MDB, a senior Malaysian official said early Friday (local time).
After a whirlwind of police activity that began more than 24 hours earlier and saw locksmiths sent in to crack open a safe inside Najib’s sprawling house, the head of the Malaysian police’s Commercial Crime Investigation Department (CCID) held an early morning news conference outside a posh condominium building in Kuala Lumpur, where officers had seized boxes full of valuable items.
“We seized 72 luggage bags, carriers of various sizes containing jewelry, watches, cash of various currencies and other valuables which values we have yet to determine,” Amar Singh Ishar Singh, the head of the unit, told reporters at the Pavilion residences.
“We are investigating the 1MDB case and the searches conducted at all six premises since yesterday are linked to this case,” he said.
“During the checks, we also seized 284 boxes of branded handbags. Among them were Hermes Birkins,” the police official said, referring to the fashionable bag that retails from U.S. $12,000 to U.S. $300,000.
The searches began Wednesday night, and included one where police officers and vehicles were seen swarming around Najib’s main residence, soon after the former prime minister had returned home after taking part in prayers at a local mosque on the eve of start of Ramadan in Malaysia. Exactly a week earlier, Najib fell from power after his ruling coalition, which had controlled Malaysian government for 61 years, lost a general election for the first time.
Days later, Najib and his wife were barred by immigration authorities from leaving the country as the couple reportedly was planning to board a private jet bound for Indonesia. Soon after, he resigned as chief of the Barisan Nasional coalition and its anchor party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).
The searches took place at six locations in Kuala Lumpur and nearby Putrajaya – Malaysia’s administrative capital. These included the official Prime Minister’s Office and Najib’s former official residence as prime minister.
“Four others were his residence,” Singh said.
Going into the election Najib was shadowed by allegations of corruption linked to 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state investment fund which he started in 2009 during his first term as prime minister. He has denied allegations of criminal wrongdoing over the deposit of nearly U.S. $700 million of 1MDB-linked money into his bank accounts, saying the money was donated by a member of the Saudi royal family.
Najib: Key lost
When asked whether the locksmiths had managed to crack open the safe in Najib’s main residence, Singh replied, “We are still working on it.”
According to Malaysian news reports, the locksmiths arrived at the house in the early afternoon on Thursday, after the authorities had discovered the safe.
It was an old safe but Najib, in a statement to media, said it had remained locked for two decades because the key to it had been misplaced.
According to a lawyer representing the ex-PM, it took six hours for the police to search the house after they first arrived on Wednesday evening.
No documents were seized, but police took some personal possessions, including handbags and presents, attorney Harpal Singh Gerwal told BenarNews.
Later on Thursday, after authorities had been on the premises for as many as 18 hours, and as people were still drilling away at the safe located on the house’s first floor, the lawyer complained that the police were harassing Najib and his family and causing them distress.
“The family is very stressed and tired with the noise and the long duration of the whole thing,” Gerwal told Benar.
“The continued presence of police officers in his residence and the drilling of the old safe suggests unwarranted harassment on my client,” he added, saying the items seized from the house were of insignificant value.
At a press conference on Thursday in Petaling Jaya, Mahathir Mohamad, the new prime minister, said the searches were conducted at the discretion of the Royal Malaysia Police.
During the electoral campaign, Mahathir had vowed to recover for the Malaysian people billions of dollars that were allegedly stolen from 1MDB and to prosecute any officials who were complicit in the scandal. Mahathir, 92, led the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition to a shock upset against Barisan.
“The police have their standard operating procedure,” Mahathir told reporters. “I suppose the police have enough reason for a raid. I don’t have any information, this is a police matter.”
On Thursday, Pakatan was formally registered as a political coalition and a Council of Eminent Persons, which had been set up by Mahathir, announced the establishment of a six-member committee dedicated to looking into matters related to 1MDB.
In a press release, the council said it recognized the importance of having a separate committee to look into matters relating to 1MDB.
“Until and unless the issue of 1MDB is resolved, there will be questions that undermine public confidence in the Government and its Institutions,” the statement said.
Anwar’s daughter slams police actions
In leading Pakatan to victory in the election, Mahathir formed an alliance with a former foe, Anwar Ibrahim, the founder of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), who was released from prison on Wednesday, after he had served three years on a sodomy conviction, which, critics said, was politically motivated.
On Thursday, there was some criticism from within Pakatan’s ranks against the police actions. Anwar’s daughter, MP Nurul Izzah, questioned the timing and the manner of the raids targeting Najib’s residences.
On her Twitter account, she said that “as a former victim of early dawn police raids, I must stress my disagreement in ransacking any home at such an ungodly hour.”
“Elections are over and now is the time for nation building and to reflect on our actions,” Nurul Izzah added.
In 2015, Nurul Izzah was arrested under the Sedition Act and was remanded for a night in police lockup over comments she made in parliament that were deemed seditious.
Reacting to her comments, the spokesman for UMNO’s youth wing issued a statement expressing appreciation at the gesture made by one of the key figures of the new ruling coalition.
“Najib is a former prime minister who had given a lot to the country since becoming a member of parliament at the age of 23,” Shahril Hamdan said.
“He has not been charged in court therefore he should be accorded the fair treatment under the principle of innocent until proven guilty.”
Enough evidence to charge Najib: Anwar
Meanwhile, the newly freed Anwar, who walked out of custody after receiving a full pardon from Malaysia’s king, said Thursday that he believed the former prime minister could be arrested and booked on criminal charges.
“Do I believe there is enough evidence to prosecute Najib? I do. Based on the notes I received, it is strong enough but can I instruct him to be prosecuted? No. It has to follow all the process of a prima facie case,” Anwar said after taking part Thursday night in a prayer at his house in Bukit Segambut.
And, in a stunning revelation, Anwar told the Reuters that a “totally shattered” Najib had telephoned him twice in his jail cell to seek his advice on the night of the election, as Najib’s tenure as a titan of Malaysian politics began to crumble.
“When he called on the night of the election, I advised him as a friend to concede and move on,” Anwar told the news service Thursday.
“He was just very evasive … he refused to concede early,” Anwar said.