Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak will stand trial next week, Kuala Lumpur’s High Court ruled Thursday, giving him a chance to formally defend himself against charges of massive corruption in the 1MDB financial scandal after a nearly two-month delay.
Najib’s long-awaited trial was originally scheduled to begin last month. But appeals filed by his attorneys during pre-trail hearings over procedural issues led to two postponements, as they tried to shield him from a raft of allegations that he was involved in a multibillion-dollar theft of money from the state fund.
The High Court issued its decision a day after a seven-judge Federal Court panel ruled that the trial may proceed.
“We will take it from there,” High Court judge Justice Mohd Nazlan Mohd Ghazali said, as he set the trial to start at 2 p.m. April 3.
Najib, 65, was once considered Malaysia’s most politically powerful man, but allegations of corruption linked to 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) contributed to the defeat of his United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party in the general elections last year, analysts say. Najib, in his dual role as prime minister and finance minister, purportedly founded 1MDB in 2009 as a vehicle to spur economic growth.
The hearing scheduled for next Wednesday is related to 42 million ringgit (about U.S. $10.3 million) that was allegedly deposited into Najib’s personal bank account by SRC International, a former 1MDB subsidiary.
The amount is minuscule compared to the U.S. $4.5 billion that American prosecutors contend was diverted from the sovereign wealth fund into the bank accounts of Najib, his friends and his family, in what U.S. prosecutors had described as “kleptocracy at its worst.”
Najib faces charges of money laundering, abuse of power and criminal breach of trust in the SRC case. He has pleaded not guilty to the accusations.
U.S. prosecutors alleged in a civil lawsuit that a “breathtaking level of fraud” occurred when 1MDB officials and their associates ultimately routed more than $730 million to the personal bank account of “Malaysian Official 1,” which BenarNews sources said was a veiled reference to Najib.
In November last year, in connection with the 1MDB affair, U.S. authorities unveiled criminal charges against Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho (also known as Jho Low) and former Goldman Sachs bankers Tim Leissner and Roger Ng.
Leissner has pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to violating anti-corruption laws and conspiracy to launder money, and has also agreed to forfeit U.S. $43.7 million, officials said.
Ng was arrested in Malaysia, but Low remains at large.
The U.S. Department of Justice had alleged in its lawsuit that Low used some of the stolen money to buy a $1.29 million heart-shaped diamond and a $3.8 million diamond pendant he gave in 2014 to actress Miranda Kerr.
DOJ also claimed in a lawsuit that Low gave a $3.2 million Picasso painting to actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who played the lead role in "The Wolf of Wall Street,” a movie that was allegedly financed using 1MDB funds.
On Thursday, Malaysian authorities announced that the government had spent a total of 14.2 million ringgit (about U.S. $3.5 million) on a superyacht that Low also allegedly acquired using stolen 1MDB funds.
The vessel Equanimity, which was originally valued at U.S. $250 million, failed to sell at auction last year after it was seized by the government. The yacht, which features a helicopter pad, a spa and room for 22 guests, is now docked at the northern island of Langkawi, Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng told the parliament.
“The total cost spent is for the maintenance, repairs, fuel, legal fees, insurance costs and costs towards the sale process of the yacht,” Lim said in his letter.
Low, whose whereabouts are unknown, has repeatedly maintained his innocence through statements released to the media by his lawyers. Prosecutors portray him as a central figure in the 1MDB theft, which has been widely seen as among the world’s biggest financial scandals.