Updated at 5:45 p.m. ET on 2018-05-21
Police searched the home of former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and four other locations for evidence of money laundering, his lawyer said early Thursday (local time), after a momentous day that saw longtime political prisoner Anwar Ibrahim walk free after receiving a royal pardon.
Authorities confirmed the search, but did not immediately release any details, as new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad appeared to move quickly on his pledge to probe the alleged looting of billions of dollars from the state fund 1MDB.
“They checked every room. That’s why it took them so long,” Najib’s lawyer, Harpal Singh Grewal, told reporters, referring to a six-hour search at Najib’s private residence.
“We believe it is under the money-laundering act, but they found nothing incriminating,” Harpal said, adding that Najib and his family were cooperating with police.
No documents were seized, but police took some personal possessions, including handbags and presents, he said.
Amar Singh Ishar Singh, the head of the commercial crime unit at Malaysia’s national police, confirmed a police raid at Najib’s home to Astro Awani, a Malaysian TV network.
Witnesses described seeing more than 10 police cars and a pickup truck parked outside the residence about 10:15 p.m. shortly after Najib returned from prayers at a mosque.
The police search took place hours after Mahathir spoke during a news conference about an ongoing investigation into the scandal-ridden 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), in which Najib was allegedly implicated.
“It is clear that there are more wrongdoings than those known by the masses, as well as by me,” Mahathir said earlier.
Anwar’s walk to freedom
Meanwhile on his first day of a newfound freedom, Malaysia’s reformist leader Anwar Ibrahim said he would not rush to become prime minister, hours after he had received a full pardon and walked free from prison.
Anwar, a 70-year-old former deputy prime minister, was released from police custody seven days after the opposition alliance that he jointly led pulled off a surprise election triumph that ushered Najib’s political downfall.
“I will be kept informed but I don’t need to serve in the cabinet for now,” Anwar told reporters after meeting the country’s king, Sultan Muhammad V.
Wearing a black suit and tie, Anwar smiled, gave thumbs up and waved while dozens of supporters chanted “Reformasi” (Reform) – the movement he launched two decades ago – as he emerged from a Kuala Lumpur hospital, where he had been recuperating for months for shoulder surgery while serving a second prison term for sodomy.
Anwar was freed Wednesday after serving more than three years of a 5-year sentence. He then boarded a car and proceeded to the National Palace, where he was met by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad for an audience with the king.
Anwar is widely expected to succeed Mahathir once the 92-year-old premier steps aside. Mahathir had pledged during the electoral campaign that he would eventually hand over power to Mahathir.
But postings on social media and newspaper commentaries had raised questions on how Anwar could work with Mahathir, who was once his political ally before becoming his nemesis, and then his ally again.
“I have forgiven him,” Anwar told the news conference at his home in Kuala Lumpur after returning from the palace.
He acknowledged that Mahathir had facilitated his release by securing a royal pardon. “I and Dr. Mahathir buried the hatchet already, it was a long time ago,” he said.
Mahathir, who had also served as prime minister for 22 years, starting in 1981, had shown his commitment to the reformist movement, Anwar said. “Why should I harbor any malice toward him?” he said.
After his news conference, Anwar spoke at a rally attended by thousands of ecstatic supporters.
“Enough of corruption. Enough of intimidation. No more,” the newly freed political icon roared into the microphone. “We have entered a new era for Malaysia.”
Past convictions expunged
Sivarasa Rasiah, a lawyer representing Anwar, told reporters that the king’s full pardon meant that all of the former opposition leader’s past convictions had been expunged.
“He is not only physically free, but also free to participate in the country’s politics as though the past convictions did not exist,” Sivarasa said.
Anwar had spent eight of the past 20 years in prison on what his supporters claimed were politically-motivated sodomy charges.
But prospects that Anwar would immediately take over as the country’s prime minister appeared in doubt on Wednesday, a day after Mahathir told the Wall Street Journal that he intended to remain the nation’s leader for “one or two years.”
In the May 9 general election, the four-party Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition alliance devastated the country’s dominant coalition, garnering 113 out of the contested 222 parliamentary seats.
Anwar told reporters after his release that the opposition triumphed “because there was a travesty of justice.”
“We appealed because there was a clear conspiracy to condemn me and assassinate my political character,” he said.
Anwar, who was Mahathir’s deputy when he was removed from office in 1998 over charges of corruption and sexual misconduct, thanked his former political adversary for his help in securing his pardon and release.
He said he and his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, had expressed their wish to meet Mahathir soon, perhaps on Thursday, to convey their gratitude.
“What’s most important is that we must look forward. We have a duty to bring the nation forward,” he said. “We have to move on.”
Mahathir, in a separate news conference after Anwar’s release, skirted direct answers on questions about the future role of his former political protégé in the new government.
“His role is in the party. He is the leader of one of the parties in Pakatan Harapan,” Mahathir said, referring to Anwar.
He explained that the opposition coalition was composed of four equal partners, as he took credit for Anwar’s release from prison.
“In the past it was said that I put him in prison,” Mahathir said. “Now I have freed him.”
Mahathir also said he would also meet with top PH officials to talk about Anwar. “If there’s any changes on Anwar’s position, it will be decided at the council,” he said.
Mahathir stunned the nation in February 2016 when he left the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the anchor party in the ruling Barisan Nasional bloc that has dominated Malaysian politics since independence from Britain in 1957. He later joined forces with his former foe Anwar, whom he once sent to jail on a sodomy charge.
‘One of the sweetest gifts’
Sodomy carries a jail term of up to 20 years in Muslim-majority Malaysia. Without an absolute pardon from the king, Anwar would have been disqualified for five years from running for office after his release.
Anwar was kicked out as Mahathir’s deputy prime minister on Sept. 2, 1998, amid reports he was under police investigation. He was sentenced to six years in prison for corruption in April 1999 and nine years in prison for sodomy in August 2000. He was freed four years later after the country’s top court dismissed his sodomy conviction, but his corruption conviction stood.
Anwar became a rallying figure for the opposition after he suffered a black eye while under police custody in September 1998, shortly after he was detained for allegedly leading an anti-government protest. His photo with a black eye and one hand raised became a symbol of the political opposition in many posters.
The most recent roadblocks for Anwar assuming power began with his second sodomy conviction. He was acquitted of the charge in 2012, but a court of appeal reversed the decision two years later and ordered the five-year sentence.
While last week’s historic vote unfolded, Anwar was confined as a prisoner at Cheras Rehabilitation Hospital in the country’s capital, after suffering a shoulder injury while being transported in a prison van.
Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah, stayed with him at the hospital. She has been named as the country’s new deputy prime minister.
On Tuesday, Anwar’s daughter, Nurul Izzah, told reporters that she grappled with the possibility that her father could observe Ramadan, the holiest month for Muslims, together with his family.
“This is one of the sweetest gifts we can have as a family,” she said.
On the same day, Wan Azizah, told reporters that there were no plans to hold a special election in the near future for Anwar to become a member of parliament, a necessary step before he could become prime minister.
“Anwar will contribute but not as part of the government,” she said in an event welcoming her as the nation’s first female deputy prime minister. She asked her supporters to give Mahathir enough time to form his cabinet.
At his news conference, Anwar echoed that statement.
“I said to Tun Mahathir that it is better for him and Wan Azizah to continue. Give time for me and family,” Anwar said. “I think I need that time and space and I think he welcomes that decision.”
Sidelining a formidable rival
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, in a statement emailed to BenarNews, reminded Malaysians not to forget the injustice that Anwar faced while serving “a long sentence for a crime that should never have been considered a crime.”
“It’s not surprising that there has now been this political solution, in the form of a new government granting his freedom, to his case which former Prime Minister Najib shamelessly politicized from the very start to sideline a formidable political opponent,” Robertson said.
Regional lawmakers also welcomed Anwar’s release, expressing hope that the move signaled Mahathir’s commitment to reform and to addressing human rights concerns in Malaysia.
“Anwar’s release is a step in the right direction for human rights and democracy in Malaysia, as well as the ASEAN region as a whole,” said Teddy Baguilat, a board member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).
UMNO members joining PH
Mahathir, meanwhile on Wednesday, confirmed that many members of UMNO were trying to join Pakatan.
“But we find that the public are unable to accept that,” he told a news conference. “Therefore, they will not be accepted.”
They can leave their old party and swear allegiance to the new government on their personal capacity, but they will not become members of the administration, Mahathir said.
“We will not want the new government to be seen [as] similar to the old government, so their membership will not be accepted,” he said.
Mahathir pledged that his government would repatriate billions of dollars in money stolen from 1MDB that was currently in foreign countries, including the United States, Switzerland and Luxembourg.
“Najib did not acknowledge that the money is from Malaysia,” Mahathir said on Wednesday. “We would like to inform here that these monies belong to Malaysia and we would like to have it back.”
Najib, who has been barred from leaving the country, lost power as a result of an electoral landslide in favor of the opposition while fending off international money-laundering probes linked to billions of dollars allegedly siphoned from 1MDB, which Najib had founded in 2009.
Washington is trying to recover more than $1.7 billion in real-estate and other assets allegedly embezzled from the state fund, including $681 million that were diverted into Najib’s personal bank accounts, court documents allege. Najib has consistently denied the allegations.
Mahathir on Wednesday hinted about possible arrests.
“We will make a police report and once we get to a level where we can make arrest, we will make an arrest,” Mahathir said.
An earlier version misspelled the name for Najib's lawyer.