Malaysian anti-corruption authorities on Wednesday released audio recordings of alleged conversations between former Prime Minister Najib Razak and officials, saying these show the ex-leader was trying to cover up abuse of power and graft tied to the 1MDB financial scandal.
The nine recordings that last 45 minutes, including one believed to be a July 2016 conversation between Najib and the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, prove elements of a cover-up involving the 1Malaysia Development Berhad state fund, the chief of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) said.
“There are various serious issues that arise including abuse of power, criminal conspiracy, obstruction of justice compromising national security, fabrication of false evidence through foreign aid and connivance,” Latheefa Koya told a news conference in Putrajaya, Malaysia’s administrative capital.
“All these things are pretty scary because all this happened in the midst of serious investigations of a mega scandal and corruption over the last few years,” she said. “Here we are listening to conversations completely undermining the institution that is supposed to … seek justice.”
On Wednesday, Najib did not confirm nor deny the authenticity of the recordings, which include two involving his wife, Rosmah Mansor.
As he spoke to reporters at the Kuala Lumpur Court Complex, where he is standing trials on two separate sets of corruption charges linked to 1MDB, he said the public release of the recordings hurt Malaysia’s diplomatic ties.
“I was a sitting prime minister at that time. Whether anyone had the right to wiretap conversations of a prime minister, especially with another head of state, this can impact the diplomatic relations and Malaysia’s interests with other countries,” he said.
Latheefa said the recordings were made from January to July 2016, and obtained by her agency in 2020.
“We have been given the recordings but I won’t tell you from where at this point. Pursuant to our investigation, we can confirm their absolute authenticity,” she said, adding, “the contents are shocking. It’s a cover-up and a subversion of justice.”
‘I have this personal request’
Among the recordings played for reporters at the news conference was a July 22, 2016, conversation between men whom MACC identified as Najib and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zyed al-Nahyan, the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates.
They allegedly discussed a plan to clear Najib’s stepson, Riza Aziz, from a lawsuit filed two days earlier by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) over alleged money laundering linked to Riza’s Red Granite Pictures production of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a Hollywood movie.
“I have this personal request, your Highness, which relates to Riza, my son, his movie. The problem can be relatively small if there can be an agreement with Sheikh Mansour (Zayed al- Nahyan) to have a loan agreement signed and he will pay back according to the schedule. That will show that it’s a legitimate financing package and not money laundering, you see.
“At the moment, he is under a bit of pressure in America. We are worried about him, in case they make him the scapegoat,” Najib allegedly said as he asked the crown prince to have his son sign the loan agreement.
Najib established 1MDB in 2009 ostensibly to spur economic development, but the fund amassed billions in debts.
At the time it filed the lawsuits, the U.S. DOJ accused “Malaysian Official 1” – later identified as Najib – and associates of embezzling and laundering more than U.S. $4.5 billion (18.45 billion ringgit) in 1MDB-linked money between 2009 and 2014.
The lawsuits did name Riza as owner of Red Granite, which allegedly received $238 million from 1MDB-linked transactions used to finance movie productions and to purchase luxury real estate in the U.S. and Britain. Riza’s Red Granite Pictures agreed to a $60 million (246 million ringgit) settlement with the U.S. government in March 2018.
A recording from Jan. 5, 2016, allegedly captured a conversation between Najib and a man believed to be an officer with the attorney general’s office, Dzulkifli Ahmad, who discussed the status of MACC’s investigation at the time into 1MDB. Dzulkifli, who later became MACC chief, allegedly told Najib that his name was mentioned as among those who should be charged over the scandal.
Three weeks later, on Jan. 26, 2016, then-Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali announced that “no criminal offense” had been committed related to a $681 million (2.8 billion ringgit) transfer into Najib’s accounts, calling it a “personal donation” from Saudi Arabia’s royal family. Apandi also announced that his office was closing probes into cases tied to 1MDB.
Najib has claimed the funds were given to him to finance 2013 political campaigns for ruling-party candidates.
The government led by Najib’s successor as prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, reopened investigations into 1MDB following the May 2018 election upset that removed the United Malays National Organization party from power for the first time in Malaysia’s history.
Latheefa told reporters that she did not believe the recordings would affect Najib’s trials on 42 charges linked to 1MDB and its subsidiary, SRC International, but MACC would turn them over to police.
Police Commissioner Zamri Yahya, who directs the Integrity and Standards Compliance Department at the Royal Malaysia Police, attended the conference where he heard the recordings for the first time.
“After receiving the audio we will send them for forensics analysis before we initiate an investigation. The IGP will talk to the media later,” Zamri told BenarNews, referring to Inspector General of Police Abdul Hamid Bador.
Najib’s defense lawyer, Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, said he was considering action against MACC and Latheefa for contempt of court, adding it could affect the ongoing trials.
“You can see there are two or three cases where these recordings seem to pertain. Clearly SRC is involved, 1MDB is involved. And the other case is Riza’s matter which is also in court,” Shafee said.
Latheefa challenged Shafee.
“I don’t see how it affects the current case. As far as we are concerned this is of public interest involving serious national security, so I don’t see how it cannot be shared,” she said.
Meanwhile, criminal attorney Akberdin Abdul Kader said MACC likely had committed two offenses by releasing the audio recordings to the public.
“It is sub judice [under judicial consideration and prohibited from public discussion elsewhere] because cases are ongoing. Secondly, revealing communication between husband and wife is an offense under Section 122 of the Evidence Act, as husband and wife communication is privileged and cannot be disclosed in public,” he said.
“In court, if something involves criminal elements, it can be exposed only after receiving a judge’s approval,” he told BenarNews.
Another lawyer, R. Sivahnanthan, supported the opinion that conversations from wiretaps could be presented to the court but not shared in public.
“To begin with, our constitution promises us a right to privacy,” he told BenarNews.