KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysia’s former leader Najib Razak was found guilty of corruption on Tuesday in the first trial linked to a multi-billion dollar scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) that stretched to the Gulf states and Hollywood.
The case was widely seen as a test of Malaysia’s resolve to stamp out corruption and could have big political implications for the Southeast Asian nation.
Najib, 67, appeared calm, albeit stony-faced as the judge delivered the guilty verdict. He had led the country for almost a decade before losing the 2018 election.
“After considering all evidence in this trial, I find that the prosecution has successfully proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Kuala Lumpur High Court Judge Mohamad Nazlan Mohamad Ghazali said.
The court is expected to deliver a sentence later on Tuesday, after the judge rejected pleas by Najib’s lawyers to delay the sentencing until next week. The corruption charges carry hefty fines and jail terms of up to 15 or 20 years.
He had pleaded not guilty, and flagged his intent to lodge an appeal at the federal court if he was convicted.
Najib faced seven charges of criminal breach of trust, money laundering and abuse of power for allegedly illegally receiving nearly $10 million from former 1MDB unit SRC International.
That’s only a fraction of the money that Najib is alleged to have misappropriated from 1MDB. Prosecutors say more than $1 billion of 1MDB funds made its way into his personal accounts – over which he faces a total of 42 criminal charges.
U.S. and Malaysian authorities say a total of $4.5 billion is believed to have been stolen from 1MDB, a fund Najib founded to promote economic development, and used across the world by Najib’s associates to buy art, a superyacht and fund the “Wolf of Wall Street” movie.
Prosecutors have also said $27 million was used to buy a pink diamond necklace for Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, and some of the money went into warchests for Najib’s election campaigns.
- Guilty verdict for Malaysia's Najib caps dramatic turn in fortunes
Former U.S. attorney-general Jeff Sessions described the scandal as kleptocracy at its worst.
Allegations of corruption over 1MDB have hung over Najib for more than five years. But the criminal charges came only after his defeat in the 2018 election when his successor Mahathir Mohamad reopened investigations.
“The conviction sends a strong message that leaders will be held accountable for wrongdoings in office,” opposition lawmaker Charles Santiago said.
Najib’s lawyers had argued that he was misled by Malaysian financier Jho Low and other 1MDB officials into believing that the funds banked into his accounts were donated by the Saudi royal family, rather than misappropriated from SRC as prosecutors alleged. Low has denied wrongdoing.
Judge Mohamad Nazlan told the court it was “far fetched” to believe Najib could have been misled by Low and asked why he never questioned Low’s claim that the money was a donation.
Dozens of Najib supporters, gathered outside the courthouse for hours, called for the former premier to be freed and were seen offering prayers.
Since his ouster two years ago, Najib has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity after embarking on a makeover of his public persona, adopting a more personable tone to replace his image as a super-rich patrician.
His party returned to power in February as part of an alliance led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
The guilty verdict could boost Muhyiddin’s credibility with the public, but create tensions within the coalition in which Najib’s UMNO party is the biggest component.
Sources have said if Najib is found guilty, there’s a real threat of his camp withdrawing support for the government, which has a razor thin majority.
Exactly five years ago, Najib fired Muhyiddin – then his deputy – for questioning him about the money flows from 1MDB.
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