Updated at 5:29 p.m. ET on 2018-05-22
Malaysia’s anti-corruption commission questioned former Prime Minister Najib Razak for four hours on Tuesday, while in a press conference its chief described pressure and threats the agency endured when attempting to probe the theft of millions of dollars from the state fund 1MDB.
Najib, 65, reported to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) in the nation’s administrative capital early Tuesday and left about five hours later, telling reporters the questioning would continue on Thursday.
“I would like to inform that I have given several statements to MACC in 2015 on the issue of SRC and my statement today is a continuation of those previous statements in more detail,” he said, referring to the energy company SRC International, a former subsidiary of 1MDB.
According to the Wall Street Journal, about 42 million ringgit (more than U.S. $10 million) from SRC ended up in Najib’s bank accounts, where hundreds of millions of dollars of 1MDB funds allegedly landed as well.
Shortly after Najib entered the MACC offices to give a statement, the agency’s chief Shukri Abdull told reporters that the ex-prime minister would not be arrested.
“Today we continue to record his statement. Why? Because we received extra information. We are not going to arrest or charge him,” Shukri said, without clarifying if such actions could be taken in the future.
Investigators questioned Najib days after police seized hundreds of boxes of designer handbags and 72 suitcases containing cash, jewelry and luxury items from properties linked to him.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has described the 1MDB affair as “the worst kleptocracy scandal in recent times,” pointing to more than U.S. $4.5 billion being stolen from the fund since its inception in 2009.
Court documents filed in California allege that almost U.S. $700 million of the stolen funds ended up in Najib’s bank accounts in 2013. Najib has denied any criminal wrongdoing, saying the money deposited into his bank accounts was a donation from a Saudi prince.
Over the weekend, while visiting his home state of Pahang, Najib reiterated his earlier claim.
“I did not steal money from the people,” Reuters quoted him as saying.
‘Treated like traitors’
Najib arrived at the MACC in a white van escorted by two motorcycle-riding officers and three other vehicles. He did not speak to reporters who swarmed him outside the MACC building.
As Najib met with investigators at the agency’s headquarters, Shukri held his maiden news conference at the same building.
Shukri said he briefly fled to the United States in 2015, when he was the agency’s deputy chief, after hearing he would be arrested and charged with conspiracy.
“You know, Abu Kassim and I were treated like traitors when we were trying very hard to bring back the stolen money,” he said of his boss at the time, Abu Kassim Mohamed, who had assigned him to investigate millions of ringgits found in Najib’s bank accounts.
When Abu Kassim was about to indict Najib in July 2016, then-Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail was suddenly removed from his position, Shukri said. At the height of the 1MDB probe in 2015, Najib also removed several of his critics from office, including four Cabinet ministers.
Shukri said he and Abu Kassim had urged federal ministers to replace Najib with either Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who was then deputy prime minister, or the then defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein.
“But out of all the ministers we approached, only three spoke up,” he said. The three were Muhyiddin Yassin, Shafie Apfdal and Ahmad Husni Hanadzlah.
“When our attempts to convince the ministers were unsuccessful, we … met with the Council of Rulers twice but to no avail,” he said.
Shukri said he was the target of threats and bribery attempts and once received a live bullet in the mail, but did not report it to police.
“We had our own intelligence sources, that I would be arrested and locked up, because I was accused as being part of a conspiracy to bring down the government,” he said.
Shukri almost broke down into tears as he recalled how he felt guilty when he was told that some of his staff had been sent to jail, while he was in Washington.
“I felt helpless and was frustrated for failing to protect my men,” he said.
Referring to Najib’s claim that the millions of dollars in his personal bank accounts came from the Saudi royal family, Shukri said investigators from his agency traveled to Saudi Arabia and interviewed the prince, whom he did not identify.
“The standard operating procedure is for us to look for our own witnesses. But in this case, the questionable prince was introduced to us by someone,” he said. “The prince confirmed that the funds were a donation but he couldn’t produce supporting documents.”
On Monday, the DOJ issued a statement saying it “looks forward to working with Malaysian law enforcement authorities in investigating transactions related to 1MDB.”
“DOJ is committed to ensuring that the United States and its financial system are not threatened by corrupt individuals and kleptocrats who seek to hide their ill-gotten wealth,” the statement said. “Whenever possible, recovered assets will be used to benefit the people harmed by these acts of corruption and abuse of office.”
During the Friday raid at a Pavilion Residence condominium unit linked to Najib, police said they confiscated 284 boxes containing Hermes Birkin handbags, each worth U.S. $12,000 to more than U.S. $200,000.
The police search was one of six simultaneous raids that authorities said were linked to the 1MDB probe. Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, have been barred from leaving the country.
Just hours before he was to appear before the MACC, Najib hired a new legal team, according to media reports and one of his lawyers.
Meanwhile, over the weekend as news about the seizure of luxury items dominated headlines and lit up Malaysian social media, Rosmah issued a rare statement through her lawyers calling on the authorities to stop spreading leaks.
“It is our hope that the authorities would observe the rule of law and due process, to avoid a premature public trial,” read the statement, according to multiple news outlets.
“Enforcement agencies should not be feeding social media trolls, but observe and uphold strict professionalism at all times,” the statement said.
Najib, son of a former prime minister and nephew of another, met the investigators almost two weeks after his ruling coalition suffered a devastating defeat in the May 9 general election
New Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has convened a task force to investigate crimes committed in relation to 1MDB, which Najib founded in 2009 as a sovereign wealth fund to support economic development in the country.
Hareez Lee contributed to this report.
Updated to include additional comments made by MACC chief Shukri Abdull during his news conference.