KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) – The luxury-loving wife of Malaysia’s former prime minister was Thursday charged with money laundering and tax evasion linked to a multi-billion-dollar scandal that helped bring down the country’s previous government.
Rosmah Mansor, the 66-year-old wife of former prime minister Najib Razak, pleaded not guilty to 17 charges that could see her spend the rest of her life in prison.
Known in Malaysia for her lavish overseas shopping sprees and fetish for Birkin handbags, Rosmah was released on bail after spending the night in detention at the office of the country’s anti-corruption agency.
Her husband is also out on bail on more than two dozen charges linked to the alleged plunder of state funds during his nine years in power.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, 93, who came back from retirement to challenge Najib, has launched a crackdown against corruption in the previous government.
“There is no idea of revenge and anything like that… If you steal money, you will be charged in court,” the official Bernama news agency quoted him as saying.
In the charge sheets, prosecutors accused Rosmah of having “engaged directly in a transaction that involves proceeds of unlawful activity” in violation of laws against money laundering.
A dozen charges involved deposits to a single bank account belonging to her from 2013-2017, totalling more than seven million ringgit. The remaining charges were for dodging taxes on the deposits.
Lead prosecutor Gopal Sri Ram told the court Rosmah’s alleged offences were “very serious”.
He also said Rosmah “had approached a witness with a request to give a statement in her favour”.
Rosmah was allowed to post bail of two million ringgit (US$483,365) and ordered to surrender her passport. She was barred from contacting any witnesses.
Rosmah, wearing an orange dress and scarf, arrived under heavy security at the court complex Thursday after being arrested the previous day and held overnight at the headquarters of the country’s anti-corruption agency.
In court, she sat quietly in the dock and did not look at the gallery, where family members were seated.
Meanwhile her husband made a separate court appearance Thursday in connection with some of the more than two dozen charges lodged against him.
Najib, 65, has denied any wrongdoing despite revelations that hundreds of millions of dollars ended up in his bank accounts.
Lawyers said the disgraced former first couple face protracted legal battles as they are being tried in ordinary courts.
“For the trial and all subsequent appeals to conclude, this may take some years,” said N. Surendran, a lawyer who advises the rights group Lawyers for Liberty.
A central issue in the May election that ousted Najib was the allegation that his family and cronies looted billions of dollars from state fund 1MDB in a fraud ring that stretched from Singapore to Switzerland.
Rosmah’s love of the trappings of wealth made her a target of critics ahead of the poll. After the election loss, a stash of cash, jewellery and hundreds of designer handbags worth as much as US$273 million was seized from properties linked to Najib and Rosmah.
Surendran told AFP that charging Najib and Rosmah sends a message that “corruption in government will no longer be tolerated.”
He added that the multiple charges could also be an attempt “to rescue Malaysia’s battered image abroad” after the financial scandal involving state fund 1MDB.
Rosmah is often compared to Imelda Marcos, who left behind more than a thousand pairs of shoes after her husband, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, was ousted in a popular uprising in 1986.