Former Malaysian leader Najib Razak was sentenced Tuesday to 12 years in jail on corruption charges linked to the multi-billion-dollar 1MDB scandal that led to the downfall of his government two years ago.
The ex-prime minister was also fined almost $50 million after being convicted on all seven charges in the first of several trials related to the looting of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad sovereign wealth fund.
The 67-year-old is challenging the verdict and will be allowed to remain free on continued bail until a lengthy appeals process is complete.
Billions of dollars were stolen from Malaysia’s main state investment vehicle and spent on everything from high-end real estate to pricey art.
Investment bank Goldman Sachs also became embroiled in the scandal and faces a series of hefty fines in both the United States and Malaysia as a result.
Anger at the looting played a large part in the shock loss of Najib’s long-ruling coalition at elections in 2018, and he was arrested and hit with dozens of charges following his defeat.
The verdict was welcomed as a boost for Malaysia’s rule of law and came despite Najib’s political allies returning to power earlier this year as part of a coalition.
Judge Mohamad Nazlan Mohamad Ghazali at Kuala Lumpur’s High Court found Najib guilty on seven charges regarding the transfer of 42 million ringgit ($9.9 million) from a former 1MDB unit to his bank accounts.
The blue-blood politician, whose father and uncle had both been Malaysian prime ministers, had vehemently denied any wrongdoing and looked calm as the verdict was handed down.
– ‘Kleptocracy’ –
After finding him guilty on a range of charges including abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money-laundering, the judge sentenced Najib to between 10 and 12 years on each.
The sentences will run concurrently, however, meaning he will remain behind bars for 12 years.
“I regret the court decision today, but we will appeal to the court of appeal,” Najib told reporters after the verdict, as hundreds of angry supporters outside the building chanted “Long live Najib”.
“It is not the end of the world… I believe in my innocence,” he said.
Prosecutor V. Sithambaram had called for a heavy punishment, telling the court Najib was guilty of a “gross betrayal of trust”.
“This case has tarnished the country as a kleptocracy, and the people of Malaysia don’t deserve that,” he said.
The former leader had insisted he was ignorant of the transactions from the 1MDB unit, SRC International.
The defence team portrayed him as a victim, and instead sought to paint financier Low Taek Jho — a key figure in the scandal who has been charged in the US and Malaysia — as the mastermind.
Low, whose whereabouts are unknown, maintains his innocence.
Najib’s lawyers said he was tricked by Low into believing the money was a donation from Saudi royalty, but the judge dismissed the notion as “far-fetched”.
– Political turbulence –
The return of Najib’s party to power, after the collapse of a reformist administration that replaced him, was quickly followed by prosecutors dropping charges against his stepson Riza Aziz, and raised concerns the ex-leader’s own cases would be influenced.
Riza allegedly also received huge sums from 1MDB, including to bankroll his Hollywood production company — which made “The Wolf of Wall Street”, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Analysts said the conviction would boost confidence in the new government headed by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, whose legitimacy has been questioned since he took power without an election.
Muhyiddin said in a statement the government respected the court’s decision and urged Malaysians to “have full faith in the judiciary and to regard this institution as being free and independent”.
Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia expert from the University of Nottingham, told AFP that the premier will be seen as “putting country over politics” and would “gain support from those who wanted to see justice in case”.
The political ramifications could be significant, however.
The conviction could destabilise the ruling coalition, which has a razor-thin majority in parliament, if Najib and his backers withdraw support — potentially prompting a snap election.
The amounts involved in Najib’s first case are small compared to those in his second and most significant trial, which centres on allegations he illicitly obtained more than $500 million.
Malaysia had also charged Goldman Sachs, claiming large amounts were stolen when the bank arranged bond issues for 1MDB, but the two sides agreed to a $3.9 billion settlement last week.