Ousted Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and one of his top officials were charged with a criminal breach of trust on Thursday over the alleged misuse of 6.6 billion ringgit, or $1.6 billion USD, in public funds in the latest charges stemming from a massive international corruption scandal known by the acronym 1MBD.
Najib, and his former finance chief Mohd Irwan Serigar Abdullah, both pled not guilty at a Kuala Lumpur court, with defense attorneys arguing that the funds were not misused, but "reallocated," instead so that the administration could make debt payments and avoid default.
The prosecution claims that money from five different government funds, most in excess of 1 billion ringgit, were used instead for illicit means. If convicted of these charges alone, the pair could face up to 20 years behind bars, a host of fines, and caning, under Malaysia's judicial system.
Watch: Exiled Chinese Billionaire Uses YouTube To Wage A War On Corruption (HBO)
In total, 38 criminal charges, including allegations of money laundering, fraud and corruption, have been brought against Najib and his cronies by an increasingly bold anti-corruption commission. The commission was given an investigation mandate by the current prime minister, 93-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, who vowed to prosecute Najib and return as much of the money as possible after taking office. Mahathir bragged to the press that authorities had an “almost perfect case” against Najib back in June, explaining that he had his disgraced predecessors' signature on stacks of documents related to the case.
"Nothing can be done without his signature, and we have his signature on all the deals entered into by 1MDB," he told journalists, adding that Najib was "totally responsible," for graft that occurred during his term in office.
Najib spent much of his final years in office dogged by allegations of corruption that swirled around the 1MDB government development fund. At least $4.5 billion USD of the money was pocketed by Najib and a close cadre of Malaysian officials and bankers, with an estimated $700 million USD ending up in Najib's own personal bank accounts, according to a US investigation into the scandal.
All that money ended up in some pretty strange places too, including Hollywood blockbusters like The Wolf of Wall Street and Dumb and Dumber To as well as a luxury yacht docked in Indonesia, multi-million dollar properties in New York, Beverly Hills, and London, and $8.1 million USD in jewelry given as a gift to Australian model Miranda Kerr.
For years, Najib was able to dodge the allegations, claiming that the $700 million USD was a gift from the Saudi royal family. But it was his wife's collection of expensive handbags that may have been his eventual undoing. The sartorial excesses of Rosmah Mansor, who was repeatedly seen with purses totaling more than $219,000 USD-a-piece, were, for many Malaysian voters, the final straw. Multiple voters told VICE that they stood with Najib and his Barisan Nasional (BN) for years, until they saw how much money Rosmah had dangling from her arm.
Rosmah herself was arrested and charged with money laundering as well. She's pleaded not guilty to all charges.
At this point, the biggest fish still on the loose is Najib's fugitive moneyman, the portly Jho Low—a man who was charged with money laundering and allegedly had a hand in the bulk of the 1MDB corruption. Low has been on the run for months, but he proclaimed his own innocence on his personal website, writing, “Let me be clear: I am innocent.”
“I have been paraded in effigy through the streets of Kuala Lumpur and photographs from my younger days plastered in tabloids across the globe,” he wrote. “I only ask that everyone—courts, prosecutors and the general public—keep an open mind until all of the evidence comes to light."
Mahathir has publicly implored Low to return to Malaysia and help with the investigation. It is believed that he played a central role in the laundering of the missing $4.5 billion USD, and his testimony could help track down some of the more-hidden funds.
Today, he is still on the run, but at least one man has promised to bring him in. Former defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein vowed to track Low "until the end of the world" and use his connections in the Chinese government—he is believed to be hiding in China—to capture and extradite the fugitive.
"I think all Malaysians want to know the truth," Hishammuddin told the press. "If they want to know the truth, we need to bring him back to face justice."