Malaysian Judge Orders Ex-PM’s Wife to Defend Herself in $309M Graft Case

Hadi Azmi
Kuala Lumpur
2021-02-18
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Malaysian Judge Orders Ex-PM’s Wife to Defend Herself in $309M Graft Case Rosmah Mansor, the wife of former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, arrives at the Kuala Lumpur Court Complex, Feb.18, 2021.
S. Mahfuz/BenarNews

A Malaysian court on Thursday ordered that the trial of the flamboyant wife of former Prime Minister Najib Razak go forward, declaring prosecutors had convincingly argued that she took bribes to approve a multimillion-dollar solar project for schools in Sarawak.

Rosmah Mansor’s trial will proceed even as Najib, who was convicted and sentenced in 2020 to 12 years in prison for corruption during his time in office, stands trial in a second case related to the looting of billions of dollars from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a sovereign wealth fund.

“I have given the prosecution case a maximum evaluation. I find that the prosecution had succeeded in proving a prima facie case against the accused,” Justice Mohamed Zaini Mazlan of the Kuala Lumpur High Court ruled. “I now call upon the accused to enter her defense.”

The judge spent five minutes delivering his decision after announcing that he would not summarize his findings. Prosecutors began their case more than a year ago – Feb. 5, 2020 – and wrapped up on Dec. 11 after calling 23 witnesses.

Rosmah, the former self-styled “first lady of Malaysia,” who during her husband’s nine years as prime minister was known for her expensive taste in clothes and handbags, showed up in the courtroom on Thursday in a headscarf, facemask and a flowery cream-colored traditional Malaysian dress.

Her husband, who fell from power in the May 2018 general election over the 1MDB affair, accompanied Rosmah to court. Najib was seen hugging and consoling her, before leaving to appear in a nearby courtroom, where he is standing trial on more charges linked to the financial scandal.

Rosmah was charged with seeking and receiving a bribe to influence approval of a 1.25 billion ringgit (U.S. $309.2 million) school-related energy project.

Prosecutors alleged that she had asked for 187.5 million ringgit ($46.4 million) between March and April 2016 from Jepak Holdings, a company that sought a contract with the Ministry of Education for a solar project and to maintain and operate diesel generators for 369 rural schools in Sarawak state.

She also was charged with allegedly receiving 1.5 million ringgit ($371,000) on Sept. 7, 2017, from the company and 5 million ringgit ($1.2 million) from Saidi Abang Samsudin, the managing director of Jepak Holdings, through her former aide, Rizal Mansor. Rosmah and Rizal are not related.

All three charges are under the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission Act 2009. Each carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence and a minimum fine of five times the value of money involved. 

In his opening statement last year, lead prosecutor Gopal Sri Ram said that Rosmah had wielded power during her husband’s tenure as PM (2009-2018).

“By herself, she occupied no official position. However, she wielded considerable influence by reason of her overbearing nature,” Gopal said.

‘Unfamiliar’ territory

Rosmah appeared to be agitated during Thursday’s courtroom deliberations.

She spoke loudly when asking a court official to talk without a mask on when she was asked how she would defend herself. After a brief exchange with her lawyer, Jagjit Singh, Rosmah told the judge that she planned to testify.

“My lawyer advised me to give evidence under oath in the witness box. I am sorry, honorable judge, this is unfamiliar (to me),” Rosmah told the court. “I needed to get some advice.”

By doing this, Rosmah will face cross-examination by the prosecution. She could have chosen to give an unsworn statement – which could not be examined by any parties – or to remain silent during the proceeding.

The judge set nine days for the defense team to present its case, beginning on June 9 and concluding on July 15.

As he left court, Jagjit said his team was frustrated that the judge did not reveal his summary of findings.

“To say we are disappointed is an understatement. His lordship called us to enter [a] defense but did not give his reason why he held a maximum evaluation,” he told reporters, adding, “this is our concern but we will do our best.”

Jagjit said Rosmah was “emotionally upset and distressed” by the ruling.

“We had to comfort her a little bit and we told her to go back and relax at home,” he said.

Rosmah also faces a dozen money-laundering charges and five tax-evasion charges involving 7 million ringgit ($1.7 million) filed on Oct. 4, 2018. No trial date has been set.

The money laundering charges call for a prison sentence of up to 15 years and a fine of not less than five times the sum or value of the proceeds of unlawful activity, or 5 million ringgit ($1.2 million), whichever is greater, upon conviction.

The tax evasion charges, filed under the Income Tax Act 1967, required Rosmah to furnish returns for the years 2013 to 2017.

Millions seized from couple

Police in Kauala Lumpur swooped in on Najib and Rosmah properties just days after Mahathir Mohamad succeeded him as prime minister in the wake of a historic election, which swept Najib and his United Malays National Organization party out of power for the first time in 61 years.

During the raids officers seized more than 500 handbags – mostly made by French luxury brand Hermés – 12,000 pieces of jewelry and 117 million ringgit ($29 million) in cash in different currencies. Officials estimated the total value of all items seized was between 900 million ringgit ($225 million) and 1.1 billion ringgit ($273 million).

Najib had set up 1MDB in 2009 ostensibly to spur economic development, but the fund amassed billions in debts. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice accused “Malaysian Official 1” – later identified as Najib – and associates of embezzling and laundering more than U.S. $4.5 billion (18.8 billion ringgit) in 1MDB-linked money between 2009 and 2014.

Najib, who was convicted last July on seven charges linked to 1MDB-subsidiary SRC International, faces a total of 42 criminal counts. He is appealing that conviction but is standing trial on 25 those charges alleging abuse of power and laundering of money connected with 2.3 billion ringgit ($551 million) that went missing from 1MDB.

Rosmah’s son from her first marriage, Riza Aziz, 44, made a deal with prosecutors to recover more than $100 million in stolen 1MDB funds. In exchange, five counts of money laundering involving about $248.7 million (1 billion ringgit) were dismissed in May 2020.

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