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Malaysia’s former PM is found guilty in first trial over fraud scandal

Malaysia’s former prime minister Najib Razak was found guilty today in the first of five trials over the multi-billion-dollar 1MDB scandal and sentenced to 12 years in jail and fined £38 million.

Najib was convicted on all charges in the case related to the looting of sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad.

However, it is expected he will appeal the sentence, and he may not be sent to jail immediately, writing on Facebook ‘I am ready’ to take the decision to the Court of Appeals.

The Judge sentenced Najib to 12 years in jail on one count of abuse of power, 10 years each for three counts of criminal breach of trust, and 10 years each for three counts of money laundering, as well as a fine of 210 million ringgit (£38 million).

However, Judge Mohamad Nazlan Ghazali ordered the sentences to run concurrently, meaning Najib will face up to 12 years in jail.

Ghazali said the sentence was ‘appropriate and proportionate’ taking into account that Najib had committed the crime from a ‘position of trust’ as prime minister, his final plea and the need to deter others from committing the same crime.

The 67-year-old has so far been convicted of illegally receiving nearly $10million from the fund, but faces further charges relating to more than $500million.  

Billions of dollars were stolen from the fund in total and spent on everything from high-end property to a private jet, a luxury yacht and artworks by Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh, while Goldman Sachs also became embroiled in the scandal. 

Anger at the looting contributed to Najib’s shock defeat at a general election in 2018, and he was arrested and hit with dozens of charges following his defeat.

In this first trial, Najib faced seven charges of criminal breach of trust, money laundering and abuse of power for allegedly illegally receiving nearly $10million from former 1MDB unit SRC International.  

The counts of abuse of power and criminal breach of trust are punishable by up to 20 years in jail each, while the money-laundering charges are punishable by up to 15 years each.

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 $500million. That trial began in August last year.   

His wife Rosmah Mansor also faces charges of money laundering and tax evasion, to which she has pleaded not guilty.   

About 16 months after it began, the Kuala Lumpur High Court delivered the verdict in Najib’s first trial, which centred on the transfer of money from a former 1MDB unit, SRC International, into his accounts.

Najib had vehemently denied wrongdoing.

But Judge Mohamad Nazlan Mohamad Ghazali took apart all the arguments put forward by his defence, and found him guilty on the seven charges he faced.

‘In conclusion, after considering all the evidence in this trial, I find the prosecution has successfully proven the case,’ the judge told the court.

The US Justice Department launched its own probe after claims that stolen Malaysian public money was laundered through the US financial system, and has filed lawsuits seeking some $1.8billion in assets allegedly purchased with the cash.

The department said more than $4.5billion was stolen from 1MDB between 2009 and 2015 by high-level officials at the fund and their associates.

Tens of millions of dollars were used in 2012 by Najib’s stepson Riza Aziz, an aspiring film producer, to fund the Hollywood film The Wolf of Wall Street, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Hundreds of millions were also used to purchase high-end real estate in Beverly Hills, New York and London.

A Monet painting bought for $58million, a Van Gogh for $5.5million, a $35million Bombardier jet, a $100million stake in EMI Music Publishing, and a $250million yacht were also ticked off the shopping list.

Whistleblowers say Low Taek Jho, a jet-setting Malaysian financier close to Najib but with no official position, helped set up 1MDB and made key financial decisions, while the fund was also closely overseen by Najib himself. 

Protests erupted in Kuala Lumpur when the scandal first emerged in 2015. But Malaysia’s attorney general initially cleared Najib of wrongdoing, saying the money in his account was a donation from Saudi Arabia. 

However, a new government re-opened the investigation after Najib’s shock election defeat in 2018, and items were loaded into a truck after police searched the former PM’s home in Kuala Lumpur. 

Dozens of charges were announced in 2018 and 2019, with the first of the verdicts announced today.  

The 67-year-old will likely appeal the 12-year jail sentence and he may not be sent to jail immediately. 

If his conviction is upheld, he will also be barred from political office for several years.  

Najib, who became PM in 2009 and was in power during the investigation into missing flight MH370, had insisted he was ignorant of the transactions.

The defence team portrayed Najib as a victim and instead sought to paint Low, a key figure in the scandal who has been charged in the US and Malaysia, as the mastermind.  

Najib testified he assumed the money was part of an Arab donation arranged by Low as a guise to keep Najib from being suspicious of his plundering of the 1MDB fund. 

But judge Ghazali said the idea that Low had tricked Najib was ‘far-fetched’, and also dismissed the argument the ex-leader believed the money in his account was a donation from Saudi royalty.  

Low, whose whereabouts are unknown, maintains his innocence. 

Prosecutors insisted Najib was in control of the 1MDB unit SRC International.

‘The conviction sends a strong message that leaders will be held accountable for wrongdoings in office,’ opposition lawmaker Charles Santiago said. ‘He can’t steal people’s money and expect to walk free.’ 

Dozens of Najib supporters, gathered outside the courthouse for hours, called for the former premier to be freed and were seen offering prayers. 

‘I want justice. I want to clear my name,’ he wrote on Facebook late Monday. ‘After this, we will go to the Court of Appeal. I am ready.’ 

Najib’s party had to power as part of a coalition in March following the collapse of Mahathir Mohamad’s reformist administration.  

There were concerns that this could impact Najib’s trials – particularly after 1MDB-linked charges against Riza were unexpectedly dropped in May. 

Prosecutors also dropped dozens of charges against Najib ally Musa Aman, the former leader of Sabah state. 

Malaysia had charged Goldman Sachs and some current and former staff, 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 in exchange for charges being dropped. 

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