KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) – Former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak was formally charged Wednesday with corruption linked to a multi-billion dollar financial scandal that contributed to his shock election defeat less than two months ago.
The first ex-premier in Malaysia to appear before a judge, Najib pleaded not guilty to three counts of criminal breach of trust and a separate charge that he abused his position to pocket 42 million ringgit (US$10.4 million)
Each charge could see him jailed for up to 20 years.
The unprecedented court appearance came the day after the 64-year-old was arrested at his luxury home by officers probing how billions of dollars of state funds disappeared on his watch.
In court, the former leader appeared tired and hung his head often during proceedings.
Allegations of massive corruption were a major factor behind the electoral earthquake in May that toppled Najib’s long-ruling coalition and ushered in a reformist alliance headed by his 92-year-old former mentor Mahathir Mohamad.
Wednesday’s court hearing was the latest step in a fast-moving investigation into alleged wrongdoing by Najib, his family and many of his close political and business allies.
STRONG PRIMA FACIE CASE
After the judge decided on a one million ringgit bond and ordered him to surrender his two passports, the ex-leader emerged from the building to chants of “Long live Najib” by around 500 supporters.
“This is the best way to clear my name after so much of slander against me,” Najib told reporters.
He later left in a convoy of five cars escorted by police outriders.
Attorney General Tommy Thomas, who leads a 12-member prosecution team, had requested bail of four million ringgit in cash, but Najib’s lawyer Muhammad Shafee Abdullah insisted his client was “not a flight risk”.
Najib and his wife have been barred from leaving the country since May 12.
The court set a tentative date for the trial, beginning in February 2019.
“We have a strong prima facie case which we intend to prove in the trial,” Thomas told reporters after the hearing.
Najib’s lawyer countered: “I’m happy we have a good defence. You’ll see the unfolding of the defence when the trial starts.”
Thomas had to move the venue of his press briefing to a different part of the building after Najib supporters heckled him and demanded that he speak in Malay, the national language.
An Instagram post from Najib’s son after the ex-leader was released on bail:
According to an investigation by the Wall Street Journal, US$10.6 million originating from SRC International Sdn Bhd, an energy company that was originally a subsidiary of 1MDB, was transferred to Najib’s personal bank accounts, a fraction of hundreds of millions of dollars from 1MDB that was allegedly funnelled to him.
Najib and the fund deny any wrongdoing.
The son of Malaysia’s second prime minister, Najib and his allies are accused of plundering billions of dollars from the 1MDB to buy everything from US real estate to artworks.
The US Justice Department, which is seeking to recover items allegedly bought with stolen 1MDB cash in America, estimates that US$4.5 billion in total was looted from 1MDB.
Singapore and Switzerland had also launched investigations into allegations their financial systems were used to launder 1MDB funds.
Shortly after his downfall, a treasure trove of valuables was seized in raids on properties linked to Najib and his family — including cash, jewellery and luxury handbags — worth up to US$273 million.
He and his wife Rosmah Mansor were questioned by investigators, as were his stepson Riza Aziz, whose firm produced the hit 2013 movie “The Wolf of Wall Street”, and his former deputy Zahid Hamidi.