The corruption trial of Rosmah Mansor, the wife of ex-Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, began Wednesday with prosecutors saying she wielded great influence in her husband’s government, while her attorney shot back by accusing the other side of “character assassination.”
The former first lady, known for her taste in expensive clothes, shoes, handbags and jewelry while Najib was in power, walked into the courtroom despite what her lawyers had described as a life-threatening health condition that delayed the trial’s opening by two days.
“By herself, she occupied no official position. However, she wielded considerable influence by reason of her overbearing nature,” prosecutor Gopal Sri Ram said in his opening statement as proceedings started at the Kuala Lumpur High Court.
Gopal portrayed Rosmah’s image as that of a powerful woman who could have influenced government decisions.
But defense lawyer Jagjit Singh accused the prosecution team of making sensational statements with “odors of publicity.”
“These are the remarks that they themselves chose to defame the accused and give a remark to the press,” Jagjit said. “This is a character assassination.”
Rosmah’s trial – the first against her – was expected to start Monday but was postponed after her attorney told the court she was hospitalized after suffering from severe neck pain and osteoarthritis in both knees.
Najib lost power when his longtime ruling coalition suffered a shock electoral defeat in 2018, after U.S. and Malaysian authorities exposed a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
Rosmah, 68, and Najib, 66, are at the center of a wide-ranging corruption probe into 1MDB that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad launched after returning to power in 2018.
Mahathir barred the couple from leaving the country and authorities raided their properties, confiscating up to U.S. $273 million in cash, jewelry and luxury handbags that, critics said, symbolized the couple’s ostentatious lifestyle.
Najib is also facing 42 counts of graft, breach of trust, abuse of power and money laundering related to allegations that about $4.5 billion had been siphoned off from 1MDB, which he founded in 2009. If found guilty, Najib could spend the rest of his life in prison.
In November 2018, prosecutors filed three counts of corruption against Rosmah over allegations that she solicited 187.5 million ringgit ($45.5 million) in 2016 from an executive of Jepak Holdings to help it win a contract from the education ministry to supply hybrid solar systems to schools in eastern Sarawak state.
She also pocketed 1.5 million ringgit ($364,500) from the same company official in 2017, prosecutors allege. Rosmah pleaded not guilty last year to both charges, which each carry prison sentences of up to 20 years and hefty fines.
Prosecutors also filed five tax-related offenses and 12 money-laundering charges against her in October 2018.
On Wednesday, Rosmah, wore a bright-green, flowery traditional Malay blouse and skirt as she appeared in court. She walked on her own from her car up to the fifth floor of the courthouse. An ambulance was seen following her car.
Local media quoted her as saying, “Do I have a choice?” when reporters asked the former first lady if she was feeling better.
Her husband, who is also facing trial at the High Court, appeared in the courtroom and sat next to her during the day’s session.