Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – The biggest of five corruption trials faced by former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has opened with prosecutors alleging he employed an “elaborate charade” to divert hundreds of millions of dollars to his personal bank account.
On Wednesday, the prosecution named fugitive businessman Low Taek Jho, known by his moniker Jho Low, as an “important character” in the scheme, saying he was Najib’s “alter ego”.
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“If you place the accused before a mirror, you will see Jho Low. And if you place Jho Low before a mirror, you will see the accused,” lead prosecutor Gopal Sri Ram told the court.
In his opening statement, Ram told the court that Najib used his positions as chairman of the state-owned 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) board of advisers, prime minister, and minister of finance “to exert influence over the board of 1MDB to carry out certain abnormal transactions with undue haste”.
Ram said Najib took steps to evade justice and interfered with the course of the investigation into the case.
“An elaborate charade was employed. It was acted out in four phases in which several characters played a part. His [Najib’s] objective was to enrich himself,” said Ram.
“The ultimate aim of the accused was to obtain gratification for himself. He succeeded in achieving that aim.”
In Wednesday’s highly anticipated trial, Najib faced four charges of abuse of power to “obtain gratification” totalling $550.8m from 1MDB funds and 21 counts of money laundering between 2011 and 2014.
The prosecution said after the 1MDB scandal broke in early July 2015, Najib and Jho Low took steps to cover their tracks.
“Sham documents were produced to pretend a donation from an Arab prince,” said Ram. “But these cheques were never meant to be encashed and were never encashed.”
Najib’s defence lawyer Muhammad Shafee Abdullah later told reporters his client “honestly believes” the money in his bank account came from Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz.
“He met the Saudi king and there was that promise of one billion. And money did come into his account. And that is our defence. We have always said that… It is not a secret. The question is how do you break the fact that this is the man’s belief,” said Shafee.
He maintained his client had been misled by Jho Low, a fugitive whose whereabouts are currently unknown.
“We would like them to prove that. The fact that he [Jho Low] is not here, who are you going to call to say there is collusion,” said Shafee.
Najib, who lost a general election last year, is facing 42 criminal charges of corruption overall at 1MDB and other state entities.
He pleaded not guilty to the earlier cases and maintains the charges are politically motivated.
Political analyst Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani told Al Jazeera while the public may not understand the court proceedings and technicalities of the separate trials, 1MDB is a name that still resonates among Malaysians.
“1MDB is the main reason behind Najib’s and Barisan Nasional’s downfall in the previous election,” said Asrul.
Paul Fong, 71, attended the hearing because he was fascinated by the case that has appeared so much in the news.
“I want to see for myself, hear from the horse’s mouth. This is the biggest scandal in the world,” Fong told Al Jazeera at the court.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, said Malaysians expect “a long, drawn-out” trial because of the complexity of the case.
“You’re talking about a lot of money moving around many jurisdictions around the world. So it will be very complicated and we probably won’t get a verdict until next year.”
Chin also said there is “very strong” pressure on the government from the public “to find Najib guilty”.
“But on the government side, I think the calculation is slightly different. They know that they have four more years to make sure that he’s found guilty,” he added.
“The strategy is basically to charge him with as many corruption charges as possible. The idea is that if he is found guilty on one of the charges, he will lose his status as a member of parliament, and this means he will no longer be a threat in the next general election.”
1MDB has spawned investigations in at least six countries, including the United States where the Department of Justice alleged $4.5bn had been misappropriated from the fund.