Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak went on trial in a Kuala Lumpur court on Wednesday in the first of a series of prosecutions related to the alleged theft of billions of dollars from state fund 1MDB.
The case centres on the 1MDB unit, SRC International, where Najib faces seven charges including abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering involving 42 million Malaysian ringgit ($10.3m) that allegedly made its way into his personal bank accounts. The former prime minister pleaded not guilty when he was charged last July.
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In his opening statement, Attorney General and lead prosecutor Tommy Thomas told the court that Najib had wielded “near absolute power” during his years as Malaysia’s prime minister; a period when he was simultaneously the country’s finance minister. Holding both positions ensured him both political power and control of the country’s finances, Thomas said.
“In holding the office of prime minister, and thus the nation’s highest elected public officer and head of government, the highest trust was reposed by our people in the accused,” Thomas said, before going on to sketch out some of the evidence that would be presented to show how Najib had abused that position.
Najib pleaded not guilty on all charges at the start of the trial.
The son of Malaysia’s second prime minister, Najib took the top job in Malaysia in 2009 vowing to reform the economy and the country’s authoritarian politics. But reform soon slowed, and the finances of 1MDB, a state investment fund, began to draw suspicion.
In May last year, with allegations of thievery mounting and public anger growing, Najib was defeated in the general election, the first time his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) had lost power in six decades.
“The Najib trial(s) are more important than ever as they represent the front line in the fight against abuse of power and corruption,” Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia expert at John Cabot University in Rome, told Al Jazeera.
“They not only are important to address these issues at home, but also to restore Malaysia’s reputation abroad.”
Ten years to the day that he was named prime minister, Najib stood in the dock on the fifth floor of the High Court in Kuala Lumpur to hear the seven charges against him. Najib, who remains the member of parliament for Pekan on Malaysia’s east coast and is free on bail, nodded as the clerk read each charge.
Dressed in a pinstriped navy blue suit, Najib was accompanied to court by about eight people including his son, supporters and an aide carrying a yellow cushion to support his back while sitting on the dock’s wooden bench.
The night before the trial, Ashman Najib posted words of support on Instagram, illustrated by a picture of his father with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. The former prime minister claims the money that ended up in his private bank accounts was a donation from a Saudi royal and most of it was returned.
“Tomorrow will mark the start of an excruciatingly difficult period for you daddy,” Ashman wrote.
“You have already shown tremendous strength and resolve in the face of adversity. With the right attitude, even the most trying of situations can be a blessing from Allah.”
Appeals and delays
Thomas told the court that evidence would be produced to show significant sums of money made their way from SRC into the former prime minister’s personal bank accounts and that 10.8 million Malaysian Ringgit ($2.65m) was later paid out through 15 cheques, to pay not only for home renovations but also to provide funding for component parties of the then-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.
The prosecution would also reveal how some $130,000 that was charged to Najib’s credit card at the boutique of French fashion brand Chanel in Hawaii in December 2014 was also the proceeds of unlawful activity, the attorney general said.
A number of defence applications and appeals delayed the start of the SRC trial, which was supposed to have begun in February, including an attempt to secure a gag order against the media.
Even on Wednesday, with the prosecution stressing they were ready to proceed, the defence was revealed to have filed a challenge against the charges. After a 40-minute discussion, Judge Mohd Nazlan Mohd Ghazali told the court he saw no reason for the trial not to proceed.
1MDB is now under investigation in at least six countries around the world including the United States, where assets including luxury properties, artwork, and designer jewellery have been seized.
Najib himself faces more than 40 corruption charges in relation to 1MDB, mostly money laundering but also abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and audit tampering. His wife, Rosmah Mansor, is also set to stand trial.
The prosecution noted that Najib was not only prime minister and finance minister, but also chairman of 1MDB’s board of advisers and adviser emeritus to SRC.
“A common feature of both companies was that the true power in directing and managing their affairs did not lie with the Board of Directors, as is required by law and is the universal practice wherever companies carry on business, but in the person of the accused by virtue of his holding these positions,” Thomas said.
Ibrahim Suffian, executive director of the Merdeka Center, described the case as a “landmark”. Najib is the first Malaysian prime minister to go on trial for corruption committed while in office.
“It is also a test of the new government’s commitment to carry out, uphold the rule of law,” he said.
“I think all eyes in Malaysia and perhaps the rest of the region are going to look at how the new Malaysian government handles this case – whether the courts truly are independent, or whether it is able to handle this case without undue political interference.”
Ibrahim said the strength of the evidence, as well as the prosecution’s conduct of the case, would also influence Malaysian perceptions of the former prime minister who has been attempting to reinvent himself as a ‘man of the people’ over the past few months. He has also claimed that the trial is politically-motivated.
Although the sums involved at SRC are relatively small, Thomas’s opening statement indicated that the prosecution planned to detail the lavish spending of Najib and his wife.
The prosecution’s first witness was an officer with Malaysia’s Companies Commission.
Najib sat largely impassively in the dock throughout the proceedings, sipping occasionally from a bottle of water, and checking his mobile phone.
The trial will continue on April 15.