Malaysian Court Orders UMNO Leader to Enter Defense in $30M Embezzlement Case

Muzliza Mustafa
2022.01.24
Kuala Lumpur
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Malaysian Court Orders UMNO Leader to Enter Defense in $30M Embezzlement Case Former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi speaks to reporters at the Kuala Lumpur Court Complex after a judge ordered him to enter a defense on 47 charges involving criminal breach of trust, graft and money laundering, Jan. 24, 2022.
S. Mahfuz/BenarNews

The president of Malaysia’s largest party will have to answer money-laundering and other corruption charges involving millions of dollars tied to his charitable foundation, a local court ruled Monday, saying the prosecution had made its case.

Kuala Lumpur High Court Judge Collin Lawrence Sequerah ordered Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, a former deputy prime minister who heads the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party, to present his defense on all 47 counts against him.

Zahid is accused of using more than U.S. $30 million from Yayasan Akalbudi, a foundation he set up, for personal expenses.

“I find no merit to the contention that the case has immunity in relation to the 12 charges under section 409 of the penal code,” Sequerah said.

“After a maximum evaluation, the prosecution has proven ingredients of all 12 charges and has successfully made a prima facie case. The accused is asked to enter a defense for all 12 charges,” he said, referring to specific charges of criminal breach of trust.

The judge issued similar judgments against Zahid on corruption and money-laundering charges.

Zahid’s lawyers had argued that their client should receive immunity for information and documents about his foundation that he disclosed to anti-corruption authorities on July 2 and 3, 2018. Charges were filed in October and December 2018, as well as in February 2019.

Last September, after testimony from 99 witnesses, public prosecutor Raja Rozela Raja Toran said Zahid was not entitled to immunity simply because he gave information to the anti-graft agency.

Delay approved

On Monday, the judge set April 26 as the date for Zahid to begin defending himself in court, after defense lawyers said that the original date, March 28, did not give them enough time to prepare.

“We have to interview the witnesses and submit their statements. Witness statements must be prepared and served 14 days ahead of the prosecution,” defense attorney Hisyam Teh Poh Teik told the court.

Sequerah gave Zahid three options.

“He can opt to testify under oath from the witness stand where he can be cross-examined by prosecutors; give his unsworn testimony from the witness stand, where he cannot be cross-examined; or choose to remain silent,” Sequerah said.

Zahid, who was accompanied to the courthouse by his eldest daughter and son-in-law, appeared calm as he sat and listened to the judge’s ruling.

Also present were Mohamad Hasan, UMNO’s deputy president, and Ahmad Maslan, the party’s secretary-general. About 30 UMNO supporters who gathered in the court complex lobby prayed with Zahid and the others before they entered the courtroom.

Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Zahid said he would fight the charges and testify.

“The decision is the judge’s ultimate right and I accepted it. My team of lawyers will do their work according to the court procedure. The date has been fixed,” he said.

UMNO’s Hasan said he expected the opposition to use the judge’s order to attack the party in the run-up to elections to be held in Johor state before March.

“Cases of prosecution have already been diluted. It has been going on for two to three years. How far are they going to use this court cases,” he asked reporters, referring to the complaints of massive corruption against Zahid and his former boss, ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Najib has been convicted of charges linked to a subsidiary of 1Malaysia Development Berhad, the state development fund he founded in 2009. He is standing trial on additional charges linked to what U.S. and Malaysian prosecutors alleged was the theft of at least $4.5 billion (18.8 billion ringgit) from 1MDB.

‘Want to be in power’

Wan Saiful Wan Jan, the information chief for the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu), was among those speaking out against UMNO on Monday.

“I have said this before that the court cluster is desperate to avoid prison. Started with Najib followed by Zahid,” he said in a social media post. “Both are facing jail terms because of the same reason – they were accused of embezzlement.

“Today, they used their party to force Johor to face [an] election. They are greedy and want to be in power,” he alleged. “[They] did not want other parties to be in existence as the check-and-balance in the government so if there is corruption, it can be hidden.”

In early 2020, Bersatu joined forces with UMNO when Muhyiddin Yassin established a coalition that led to his appointment as prime minister only days after Mahathir Mohamad stepped down.

Mahathir had led a coalition that upset UMNO’s Barisan Nasional coalition in the 2018 general election. Mahathir’s bloc, four years ago, had campaigned on a platform of ridding Malaysian government of deep-seated corruption stemming from the 1MDB scandal. 

In mid-2021, Zahid persuaded a few MPs to pull support for Muhyiddin, leading to his fall from office. Power returned to UMNO when the King appointed Ismail Sabri Yaakob as prime minister.

Noah Lee in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.

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