Former PM Najib loses last legal bid to get out of jail

Iman Muttaqin Yusof
Putrajaya, Malaysia
Former PM Najib loses last legal bid to get out of jail A supporter of former Prime Minister Najib Razak weeps outside the Federal Court in Putrajaya after it rejected his application to review last year’s verdict in which the court sent Najib to prison, March 31, 2023.
S. Mahfuz/BenarNews

Former Malaysian leader Najib Razak on Friday lost his final judicial chance to get out of prison when the country’s highest court rejected his request to review its 2022 decision to incarcerate him for corruption, although his lawyer claimed Najib’s legal hopes were still alive.

A Federal Court panel ruled 4-1 to deny Najib’s application to review the 12-year sentence that the court handed him last August for abuse of power and other charges tied to the misappropriation of 42 million ringgit (U.S. $9.5 million) from a subsidiary of 1Malaysia Development Berhad, the troubled state investment fund. 

Justice Vernon Ong said the court had not erred in its judgment last year and there was no miscarriage of justice, as Najib’s legal team had argued in seeking a re-trial. 

“In the final analysis, and having regard to all circumstances, we are constrained to say that he was the author of his own misfortune,” Ong said as he read out the verdict.

“We have come to the conclusion that the review application did no more than to challenge the merits of the Federal Court decisions. Accordingly, the review application should be and is hereby dismissed.”

While Judge Ong delivered the 50-minute verdict in the presence of Najib’s children and prison staff, the former prime minister sat despondently on a solitary bench in the courtroom. 

1MBD, a state investment fund, was at the heart of a massive international financial scandal that implicated Najib and brought down his government through a general election in 2018. In July 2020, he became the first former or current prime minister in Malaysia to be convicted on felony charges but he has been fighting through the courts to try and overturn that verdict. 

Najib has now effectively run out of legal options to challenge that 2020 verdict by the Kuala Lumpur High Court, prosecutors said. But after Friday’s ruling, his attorney suggested that the one dissenting voice on the bench had given his client a narrow window to keep the legal avenue open. Najib’s only other option to be freed from prison is through a pardon from Malaysia’s king.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak speaks to journalists outside the Federal Court during a court break, in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Aug. 23, 2022. [Lai Seng Sin/Reuters]

Justice Abdul Rahman Sebli was the one judge on the panel who cast the dissenting opinion. 

“Najib is paying the price for his counsel’s mistake and his rights to be heard were compromised,” the judge said.

He was alluding to how a different panel of the Federal Court had denied a request by Najib’s legal team at the August 2022 sentencing hearing to postpone it because Najib’s lead lawyer at the time was freshly hired and needed more time to prepare. 

“Justice is not only about whether or not someone accused is guilty, it must also involve a fair trial. The accused must feel that they have received a fair trial. If the system is not capable of this, they should not be tried at all,” Abdul Rahman told the court.

Deputy Prosecutor V. Sithambaram addressed reporters afterwards.

“Legally, the accused has exhausted all avenues of appeal. It is the hope of the prosecution that this will bring closure to the SRC hearing or the SRC case,” he told reporters at the courthouse in Putrajaya, referring to SRC International, the 1MDB subsidiary.

“This decision by the federal court is also a vindication that the charges against Najib are legally mounted and not politically motivated by the prosecution,” he said.

However, Najib’s lead counsel, Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, claimed that Friday’s non-unanimous ruling had provided his client with another possible legal opening.

“The minority judgment offers an avenue for review, as there are cases that support multiple reviews,” Shafee told reporters.

“As long as there are grounds for a fresh review, you can always review.”

Supporters of former Prime Minister Najib Razak wave at his car as he is driven back to Kajang Prison after a ruling at the Federal Court in Putrajaya, Malaysia, March 31, 2023. [S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

While having exhausted his appeals before the Court of Appeal and the Federal Court, Najib is also seeking a royal pardon and a U.N. petition for alleged arbitrary detention.

A royal pardon or an appeal to international courts are the only options left for Najib to pursue an acquittal in the SRC case, senior criminal lawyer Mohd Hafiz Zainol Abidin told BenarNews

“The next option for Najib is a royal pardon. If granted, the individual will no longer have any criminal record. A clean slate of sorts,” he said.

According to a political analyst, the Federal Court’s decision to reject Najib’s review application proves that Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim is living up to his pledge of not interfering with the courts.

Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is president of the UMNO party, Najib’s party, as well as Najib’s former deputy PM, is standing trial on corruption charges not linked to the 1MDB scandal. 

“So, with this decision, even if it will upset some quarters in UMNO, the retention of the prison sentence means there was indeed no interference,” analyst Jamaie Haji Jamil of National University of Malaysia told BenarNews.

The Federal Court handed down its decision four weeks to the day that Najib won a rare legal victory, when the Kuala Lumpur High Court acquitted him of tampering with a 1MDB audit report.  

Since then, another former Malaysian leader, ex-Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has also been charged on suspicion of corruption. Muhyiddin, who leads Malaysia’s new opposition bloc, has denied the accusations and blamed Anwar’s administration for being out to remove him and other rivals as obstacles to his power.  

Haizal Yatiran and Noah Lee in Kuala Lumpur contributed to the report.


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