Drama at Najib’s final hearing as lead lawyer asks to be excused

Muzliza Mustafa
Putrajaya, Malaysia
Drama at Najib’s final hearing as lead lawyer asks to be excused Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak speaks to reporters at the Federal Court in Putrajaya, Malaysia as his children stand by his side, Aug. 18, 2022.
S. Mahfuz/BenarNews

Updated at 2:21 p.m. ET on 2022-08-18

Former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s final attempt to overturn his conviction and 12-year sentence in a case linked to the 1MDB financial scandal got off to a dramatic start Thursday when judges rejected a request from his lead lawyer to be excused due to a lack of time to prepare.

Hisyam Teh Poh Teik, who was appointed as Najib’s main lawyer at the end of last month, started the day’s court proceeding, requesting the panel of five judges to grant his request for a discharged because, he said, he was not ready to lead the former PM’s defense.

“I want to start by tendering my sincere apology that I am unable to proceed with the appeal. It was an error of judgment on my part to have accepted the brief,” Hisyam told the judges. “However, I had then expected the court to grant an adjournment given the breadth and scope of this appeal.”

The judges seemed visibly unhappy.

Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat reminded the chief defense lawyer that the court had already rejected his request to delay the final appeal hearings in the case by three to four months on Tuesday.

“We reiterate that we have given the broad grounds. Are you aware that as a superior court, we have the inherent jurisdiction to administer justice and that our jurisdiction is to ensure that the court functions?” Tengku Maimun asked. “If you discharge [yourself], you will leave him unrepresented. Do you accept that?”

If the judges “aren’t inclined to give me time, I pray that I be discharged as counsel. A prayer that will sadden me,” Hisyam pleaded.

After deliberating for more than an hour, the court denied Hisyam’s request.

“The court is within its discretion to discharge a counsel. We are [however] of the view that counsel has not shown cause to discharge himself,” the chief justice said after the break.

“He is still on record as lead counsel,” Tengku Maimun told the court before asking the prosecution to start so as to give the defense more time to prepare.

Ad hoc prosecutor V. Sithambaram began his opening statement by reminding the court that Najib was the country’s prime minister and finance minister when the alleged crimes were committed. “He was holding two executive positions,” he said.

Hisyam did not raise a single objection during the prosecution’s oral submission. The court adjourned around 4 p.m. until Friday when Sithambaram is expected to resume his opening argument.

Najib and Hisyam react

After Thursday’s proceedings, Najib said it is “totally unprecedented” that the defense is left without actual counsel in such a high-profile, complex criminal case.

“I wish to record my objections in the strongest of terms of this appeal proceeding today, where my rights to life, liberty and [a] right to a fair hearing is at stake,” Najib told reporters outside the court.

“As you know, my counsel have indicated that they are unwilling to continue because of the fact that they had very limited time to prepare. Unfortunately, the court did not allow them to be discharged ... This is a very serious matter, and I hope the court will take it into account and make remedial measures at some point in time,” he said.

Najib, who was present in the courtroom during the hearing, said he prays and hopes “for a fair trial and for justice to prevail.”

Hisyam also reiterated that he was in “no position” to continue as a defense counsel since his three-month extension application to go through the documents had been rejected.

“Under such circumstances, my team couldn’t effectively proceed to defend him. Earlier, I asked to be discharged as lead counsel, but the court declined my application,” Hisyam said, adding that his team is “in no way prepared to argue the case” and so cannot “effectively represent” Najib.

The lead defense counsel alleged they are being denied a fair trial, saying, “So, in essence, Datuk Seri [Najib] has no legal representation. That is the bottom line.”

Former Prime Minister Najib Razak (right) and his chief defense lawyer, Hisyam Teh Pok Teik (left), speak to reporters at the Federal Court in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Aug. 18, 2022 [S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

Always represented

A senior criminal lawyer noted that, ordinarily, the appellant would get the opportunity to present their submission first.

“In Najib’s case, however, the prosecution, even though [they] are respondents, have been asked to submit first,” Jahaberdeen Mohamed Yunoos told BenarNews.

He also said that a court would never allow an accused to be unrepresented when asked to comment on Hisyam’s request to be discharged. “In some cases, the court even assigns lawyers to represent accused who are unable to afford lawyers. Hence, it is not merely a question of lead counsel as it more of a lawyer representing the accused,” Jahaberdeen added.

Najib and his lawyers have been trying to delay the long-awaited hearings on his appeal for months.

On Tuesday, the Federal Court also turned down his legal team’s request for a retrial. The defense team had argued then that the Kuala Lumpur High Court judge who presided over the ex-leader’s trial and conviction in the SRC International case had an alleged conflict of interest.

Hajah Radiah Rasyid, 64, (left) and her friends cheer for former Prime Minister Najib Razak outside the Federal Court in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Aug. 18, 2022. [Iman Muttaqin/BenarNews]

SRC International is a subsidiary of 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state investment established by Najib in 2009. The Federal Court judges did not find any link that could lead to “a real danger of bias,” and there was “no miscarriage of justice.” 

Najib was first charged in connection with the theft of billions of U.S. dollars from 1MDB in July 2018. After a two-year trial, he was convicted of seven charges, including abuse of power, criminal breach of trust, and money laundering, concerning 42 million ringgit (U.S. $9.4 million) of SRC International money found in his bank accounts. In addition to being sentenced to a dozen years in prison, he was fined 210 million ringgit (U.S. $47 million).

The Court of Appeal upheld the conviction and, in a strongly worded judgment, described how SRC, which started as a national interest venture, had become a national embarrassment. 

Najib, 69, denies all allegations. He has yet to serve a single day in a jail cell and is out on 2 million ringgit ($448,500) bail, pending the outcome of the appeal before the country’s highest court.

If the top court upholds the lower court’s conviction, he will become the first sitting or former PM to go to prison in Malaysian history.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.


Aug 18, 2022 07:27 AM

Just another drama. Najib has been given a wide and big special treatment since the day he was convicted. I strongly agree with what all the judges are doing right now in this trial. No more special treatment and delays.

[This comment has been edited by RFA Editorial staff per our Terms of Use]