A key prosecution witness told a Kuala Lumpur court Wednesday that former Prime Minister Najib Razak had instructed him to go to China and offer infrastructure projects in return for money to bail out 1MDB, Malaysia’s troubled sovereign wealth fund.
Amhari Efendi Nazaruddin, 43, testified that Najib had ordered him to meet with the Chinese government-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council (SASAC) in June 2016 to discuss the infrastructure projects.
“Because this came from Najib, I did not dare to go against the order,” Amhari testified at the Kuala Lumpur High Court.
Najib is standing trial on 25 charges of abuse of power and money laundering connected with 2.3 billion ringgit (U.S. $681 million) that went missing from 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, a fund he established in 2009 when he was prime minister and finance minister.
“Najib offered state enterprises’ participation in infrastructure projects while simultaneously completely resolving 1MDB and SRC debts,” Amhari said, quoting from talking points given to him to present to the Chinese commission.
“That sentence made it clear that Najib intended to send a message that the relations also entailed assisting 1MDB and SRC through bailing out 1MDB debts,” Amhari testified, reading from a 77-page statement during his second day on the stand.
“Even though I respected and followed Najib’s instruction, it was the most difficult time in my career. I worried I would be implicated in Najib and Jho Low’s plan if it was to cover up the missing 1MDB funds,” he said. He was referring to fugitive Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho, another major figure in the 1MDB corruption scandal who is better known as Jho Low.
The testimony was the first from a government witness alleging that Najib’s government held talks with Chinese officials to resolve the 1MDB debt issue in exchange for awarding contracts for infrastructure projects in Malaysia.
Ahmari, the eighth prosecution witness, is expected to return to court on Thursday to face questioning from Najib’s defense team.
Najib’s second trial in connection with the 1MDB scandal began on Aug. 28. A day earlier, the prosecution rested in a trial where the former prime minister faces seven charges related to the alleged illegal diversion of 42 million ringgit (U.S. $9.9 million) in funds from SRC International, a 1MDB subsidiary.
The alleged June 2016 meeting included discussions about six potential infrastructure projects including three – the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project, the Trans-Sabah Gas Pipeline (TSGP) project, and the Multi-Product Pipeline (MPP) project – that were approved by Najib’s government for construction, according to Amhari’s testimony.
The ECRL, which is part of Beijing’s One Belt One Road initiative, was among several Chinese-financed projects in Malaysia that were shelved months after Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad took power after leading the opposition to a shock win in the May 2018 general election.
In April, the Chinese engineering firm that was contracted for the project agreed to cut its bill to 44 billion ringgit (U.S. $11 billion) from the original price tag of 65.5 billion ringgit (U.S. $16 billion), prompting Mahathir’s government to allow the rail project to proceed. The other two projects were suspended in 2018 over cost concerns.
Jho Low’s alleged role
Amhari who was appointed in 2008 as Najib’s special officer in charge of secret projects, testified that Jho Low was present at the SASAC meeting and took a lead role in briefing the Chinese delegation.
“Jho Low then took over and continued the meeting in Mandarin to explain the matter in further detail,” Amhari testified.
The witness said he learned that Jho Low would be involved in the meeting when the financier handed him talking points and an action plan at the venue minutes before the meeting began.
Echoing a statement by the lead prosecutor, Amhari described Najib and Jho Low as each other’s “alter ego” and “mirror image.”
In his written testimony, Amhari said Jho Low had been communicating with Najib even before his own appointment in 2008, according to a copy viewed by BenarNews.
“I say this because Rosmah [Najib’s wife] called Jho Low numerous times although the gist of the conversations is not known. Many times Azlin Alias and I examined instructions from Jho Low with Najib,” Amhari said.
Ahmari said he and Azlin had received instructions from Jho Low during a series of clandestine meetings at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur. Azlin, who served as Najib’s chief private secretary, died in a helicopter crash in April 2015.
“Jho Low was easy to approach and always had a smile. He would say he had met Najib prior to the meetings. We always did what we were told as we did not want to go against Najib, and were concerned about our positions,” Amhari testified.
“Najib was aware and agreed with the instructions,” Amhari said,
He said Azlin had explained why the former prime minister was not present. “Jho Low is Najib’s trusted person, which is why Najib did not need to attend the meetings.”
Najib faces a total of 42 charges in criminal cases against him, including the SRC International trial that began earlier this year.
The 66-year-old has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.
Jho Low, who became known around the globe for a jet-setting lifestyle and partying with Hollywood stars, is a target of international criminal investigations and lawsuits in connection with 1MDB.
The fugitive has been charged in Malaysia with three counts of receiving funds and five counts of transferring funds totaling 1 billion ringgit ($261 million) under the Anti-Money Laundering and Anti-Terrorism Financing Act, officials said.