The long-awaited official verdict is out for Malaysia’s Najib Razak, who has been found guilty of all seven charges of money laundering, abuse of power and criminal breach of trust in the first of five trials relating to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. The landmark ruling is the first-ever high profile corruption case in Malaysia’s history to involve a former prime minister.
Each crime carries hefty jail sentences of up to 20 years along with caning and fines. Thirty-five charges against Najib are still pending. With this new conviction, Najib is disqualified from campaigning in Malaysia’s rumored upcoming election.
High court judge Mohd Nazlan Mohd Ghazli said he considered all court evidence, and the prosecution “successfully proved its case beyond reasonable doubt”. “The defence did not succeed in rebutting the presumption on the balance of probabilities or raising reasonable doubt on the charge against the accused,” Nazlan told a packed courtroom on Tuesday. “Najib should have the knowledge in terms of recovering the funds but he did not want the money to be recovered or resolved.”
Throughout the course of the 1MDB trial, Najib and his lawyers pinned a large amount of blame on fugitive financier Jho Low, seen by many as a key figure in the scandal. But the judge ruled that it was not valid and that “Jho Low served him”. "The defence's evidence did not diminish but enhance the perception of the accused's overarching influence with Jho Low, Nik Faisal and Terence Geh,” Nazlan told the court.
To critics and international observers, Jho Low remains a central figure in the scandal and is currently at large. Authors Tom Wright and Bradley Hope who recounted Low’s alleged exploits in the 2018 bestseller ‘Billion Dollar Whale’, said that full justice would only be served if he was apprehended. “Jho Low is highly unlikely to ever enter a courtroom any time soon,” the financial journalists told VICE News. “Until he is arrested and faces charges, it is impossible to say that justice will be served in the 1MDB saga.”
Ahead of Tuesday’s trial, Najib took to social media to announce plans to appeal a guilty judgment. “I want justice. I want to clear my name,” he wrote in Malay. He was accompanied in court by his team of 13 lawyers, sons and stepson Riza Aziz, the ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ film producer who had money laundering charges against him dropped in May.
Social distancing measures around the court were thrown out the window as thousands of his supporters, many not wearing face masks and decked out in political colors of red and blue, converged outside in full force, chanting and shouting slogans in Malay of “Malu apa, bossku” (“What’s there to be ashamed of, my boss?”) and “Kami sayang bossku” (“We love our boss”).
The 1MDB saga is considered to be one of the world’s greatest financial heists after billions of dollars were stolen from the people of Malaysia. The scandal plagued the country for years and even seeped into its mainstream political fabric. But finally after years of mounting evidence and a delay due to the global coronavirus, Najib’s corruption trial began last April and saw the former prime minister take the stand to defend himself against dozens of charges.
Just last week, U.S. investment banking giant Goldman Sachs reached a $3.9 billion deal with the Malaysian government over its role in the 1MDB corruption scheme. The case was closely-watched by many in the country, who view it as a test of the rule of law.
“A guilty verdict, which we all have been looking forward to, would be the first step to ensure justice is done for Malaysians after the loss of billions of ringgit. It would have been a nightmare to watch if he was declared innocent,” said candid Malaysian Chinese politician and lawmaker Tony Pua, who led charges against Najib and the 1MDB fund in parliament for years.
“For Najib, it will be an immediate change from a position where he is ‘innocent until proven guilty’ to one where he has to mount appeals against the guilty verdict. He doesn't lose his MP seat but he can no longer contest in party or general elections until the guilty verdict is overturned. Hence if there is a snap election soon, Najib will have to sit it out and his influence will further dwindle,” Pua added.
Najib, who recently turned 67, has consistently maintained his innocence and denied all allegations of corruption, money laundering and abuse of power. Prosecutors allege that more than $1 billion made its way into his personal accounts, a claim Najib strongly denies. “I’m not so stupid as to put stolen money into a personal account. I wouldn’t do something so bizarre,” he said back in February. Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor is also facing serious charges of her own, including tax evasion and money laundering, and has pleaded not guilty.
“If this is the price I have to pay after 42 years of service to the Malaysian people, I accept it,” Najib said on July 3 when charges were filed. “What I hope is that the judicial process is one that is truly fair that follows the rule of law. I’m confident in my innocence, that this is the best chance I have to clear my name.”
Once considered the most powerful man in Malaysia, Najib ruled the country as its sixth prime minister from 2009 to 2018. In 2009 he co-founded 1MDB as a sovereign wealth fund to promote Malaysian economic development. He was the chair of its advisory board until 2016, raising billions of dollars in investment projects and joint ventures, until suspicions arose over the fund’s lack of transparency and controversial large-scale transactions. This exploded into a global investigation involving at least six countries including Singapore and Switzerland.
This grew into widespread public anger which led to Najib’s spectacular political downfall, fuelling a historic 2018 election which saw him ousted from power and replaced by his former political mentor 95-year-old Mahathir Mohammad. However, the euphoria from 2018’s democratic vote proved short-lived as Najib’s Malay-dominated UMNO party returned to power this year through a surprise alliance with his former deputy and current Malaysian Prime Minister, Bersatu’s Muhyiddin Yassin. “A guilty verdict for Najib is bittersweet for Muhyiddin as he actually depends on Najib and his loyal supporters of some twenty members of parliament - both for the leadership and government,” Pua pointed out.