Prison for ex-PM Najib as top court upholds guilty verdict in 1MDB-linked case

Muzliza Mustafa and Iman Muttaqin Yusof
2022.08.23
Putrajaya, Malaysia
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Prison for ex-PM Najib as top court upholds guilty verdict in 1MDB-linked case Former Prime Minister Najib Razak (in the rear seat of a black SUV) is taken to Kajang Prison from the Palace of Justice in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Aug. 23, 2022.
[S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

Updated at 3:25 p.m. ET on 2022-08-23

Last-minute theatrics failed to save former Prime Minister Najib Razak from the lockup Tuesday as Malaysia’s highest court upheld his conviction in a 1MDB-related case and sent him to Kajang prison on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur to serve his 12-year sentence for corruption. 

A unanimous decision by a five-judge panel at the Federal Court sealed the downfall of the 69-year-old titan of Malaysian politics, who became the first former or current prime minister to go to prison in the Southeast Asian nation. 

Najib had evaded prison for two years by lodging appeals against the 2020 verdict by the Kuala Lumpur High Court, first in the Court of Appeal and then at the highest Federal Court, and was out on 2 million ringgit (U.S. $448,500) bail. 

Najib stood in the dock and listened impassively to the verdict of the panel led by Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat, who said the judges found that the ex-PM’s appeal petition was “devoid of any merit.” 

“[T]his is a simple and straightforward case of abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering,” said the chief justice, the first woman in Malaysia to hold that position. 

“In our judgment, the findings of the High Court on the defense are correct,” Tengku Maimun said, as she read out the decision. The defense had “failed to raise a reasonable doubt on the prosecution case.” 

The defense “is so inherently inconsistent and incredible that it does not raise a reasonable doubt on the prosecution case,” the panel’s judgment further noted. “These appeals are therefore unanimously dismissed, and the conviction and sentence are affirmed,” the chief justice added. 

After the verdict, Najib remained in the courtroom for about an hour to meet family and friends before being taken away to prison in a black police SUV, which was part of a heavily guarded convoy. 

In the weeks and days leading up to their historic verdict, the chief justice and fellow panelists had rejected multiple attempts by Najib’s lawyers to delay the long-awaited proceedings –his last legal chance to avoid prison. 

najib-wave.jpeg
Former Prime Minister and senior UMNO leader Najib Razak waves to supporters outside the Palace of Justice in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Aug. 23, 2022. [S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

Earlier in the day, Najib’s lawyer tried to have the chief justice removed from the case by alleging a conflict of interest, but the panel also rebuffed this bid saying the defense’s application for recusal did not meet the threshold for “a real danger of bias.” 

Najib’s application had argued that the chief justice’s husband had in 2018 criticized Najib on Facebook. 

In July 2020, the Kuala Lumpur High Court convicted Najib of one count of abuse of power, three counts of criminal breach of trust, and three counts of money-laundering over allegations that he illegally received 42 million ringgit (U.S. $9.67 million) from SRC International, a subsidiary of sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad. 

The court also fined Najib 210 million ringgit ($49.3 million) at the end of the case. 

Before Tuesday’s ruling, Najib told the court that he felt he had not been treated justly. 

“[A]t no point have I been afforded the opportunity to explain myself nor have I been asked about the circumstances that led us here,” Najib said while reading his statement to the court. 

“It is said that the accused is the most important person in the criminal court, yet I somehow feel mistreated, and I feel a fair trial has not been accorded to me. ... As an accused and appellant at the final stage of a case, it is the worst feeling to have, to realize that the might of the judicial machinery is pinned against me in the most unfair manner,” said the former prime minister, who wore a dark striped suit.

In the morning, Najib’s family and political allies had accompanied him to the federal courthouse, while hundreds of his supporters gathered outside the building. Some of them shouted “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”) and “Justice for Najib.”  

After the decision on the appeal, many of Najib’s supporters could be seen crying. 

najib-crowd.jpeg
Supporters of Najib Razak gather outside the Federal Court building in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Aug. 23, 2022. [S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

‘Confidence in judiciary will rise’ 

Political observers and opposition politicians hailed the verdict as a demonstration of the independence of Malaysia’s judiciary, although one analyst said this was not the end of the road in this particular case for Najib. 

“We can’t rule out a royal pardon sometime in the future,” Tunku Mohar Mokhtar of International Islamic University Malaysia told BenarNews. 

“Najib’s family holds a hereditary position in the Pahang royal court.” 

Still, justice has prevailed “despite serious sensitivities” of the case, said Ramon V. Navaratnam, former president of Transparency International Malaysia. 

“It is only right and proper that the rule of law has been strengthened. Confidence in the judiciary will rise and the economy will gain momentum,” he told BenarNews. 

“The chief justice has been outstanding.” 

On Twitter, Bridget Welsh, a local political analyst, described the ruling as a “historic moment of accountability and rule of law.” 

The opposition Democratic Action party (DAP) called the verdict a victory for all Malaysians. 

“Today’s Federal Court decision is also a victory for the country's democratic system,” DAP Secretary-General Antony Loke said in a statement. 

“Even the most powerful person, namely, the Prime Minister, can be brought down by the people and face court judgment. [This is] A new beginning for Malaysia. ...” 

Politically, the rank-and-file of Najib’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party will suffer a temporary setback, according to academic Tunku Mohar. 

“The direct political implication would be a drop in the morale of Najib’s and UMNO’s supporters,” he said. 

“However, we could expect a narrative that Najib was not given a fair hearing to be played out by his sympathizers.” 

Najib isn’t the only one in his family with graft charges against him. On Sept. 1, the verdict is due in his wife Rosmah Mansor’s corruption case related to a multimillion dollar solar project. 

Najib’s colleague, UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, separately is standing trial on 47 charges of graft and criminal breach of trust related to a family-owned foundation, and a foreign visa corruption scandal. The case is currently underway. 

An UMNO faction supported by Zahid has been pushing for snap polls, while Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who hold the number 3 position in the party has been resisting such calls. 

Tuesday’s verdict may change these positions, analysts said. 

Politics in his blood 

Najib, the son of Malaysia’s second prime minister, Abdul Razak Hussein, was active in politics from a young age and got his first big break 40 years ago when he was elected Pahang state chief minister in 1982 at the age of 29. He became Malaysia’s sixth prime minister in 2009 and held that post until 2018. 

Najib, a senior leader of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party, had established 1MDB in 2009 when he served as prime minister and finance minister, saying it would benefit the Malaysian people. 

More than $4.5 billion was diverted from 1MDB through fraudulent shell companies to corrupt officials and their associates, according to the U.S. Justice Department. 

The 1MDB scandal caused UMNO to be swept out of power in the 2018 general election, a first for the grand old party that had not lost national polls in Malaysia’s  then 60-year history. 

Meanwhile, Najib is standing trial in another court on 25 charges of abuse of power and money laundering connected with 2.3 billion ringgit ($551 million) that went missing from 1MDB. He could also face trials on 10 additional outstanding charges. 

Tengku Noor Shamsiah Tengku Abdullah and Nisha David in Kuala Lumpur, and Nani Yusof in Washington contributed to this report.

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