PUTRAJAYA – Malaysia’s Appeal Court on Wednesday upheld the conviction and 12-year jail sentence of ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak linked to the massive looting of the 1MDB state investment fund that brought down his government in 2018.
Najib was found guilty by a high court in July 2020 of abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering for illegally receiving 42 million ringgit ($9.9 million) from SRC International, a former unit of 1MDB. It was the first of several corruption trials against Najib that are linked to the 1MDB scandal, which sparked investigations in the U.S. and several other countries.
The ruling by the three-member appellate bench was delivered via a Zoom hearing after a defense lawyer was suspected to have contracted COVID-19.
“All in all, we find the conviction safe," said Appeal Court judge Abdul Karim Abdul Jalil. “We dismiss the appeal... and affirm the conviction by the High Court on all seven charges.”
The appellate court approved the defense’s request to stay the conviction pending a final appeal. Najib, 68, will remain out on bail until then.
Najib, who looked somber when the verdict was read out, told a virtual news conference later that he was disappointed in the outcome. He reiterated his innocence and said he would appeal to the Federal Court, the country's top court.
“As a Muslim, I have sworn in the name of Allah that I didn’t know (the 42 million ringgit was from SRC), nor did I ask for it. Nor did I direct anyone or that amount to be transferred to my office to my personal account," he said.
Najib, who set up 1MDB shortly after taking office in 2009, has said the charges against him were political. He has just returned from Singapore, after the court approved his request earlier to travel to be with his daughter who recently gave birth.
Lead prosecutor Sithambaram said the appeal court's verdict showed the case was based on “cold, hard facts" and that there was no political motive behind Najib's prosecution.
A scion of one of Malaysia’s most prominent political families, Najib faces a total of 42 charges in five separate trials linked to 1MDB, some of which are ongoing. Investigators allege at least $4.5 billion was stolen from it and laundered by Najib’s associates. Najib’s wife is also on trial for corruption.
Despite his graft conviction, Najib remains politically influential and his United Malays National Organization party has rebounded from its 2018 shocking election ouster.
UMNO returned to government in March 2020 as part of a new coalition that took power from the reformist government that won 2018 elections. In August, UMNO took back the premiership after one of its leaders was appointed the country's new prime minister following a power struggle.
Defense lawyers argue that Najib has been denied a fair trial because the high court judge made “serious misdirections” in the trial. Najib has said he wasn’t aware of the SRC money channeled into his bank accounts and that he was misled by Malaysian fugitive financier Low Taek Jho.
But the three-member appellate bench said they found no error in the high court's judgement.
Judge Abdul Karim said Najib clearly used his position to approve a government guarantee for billions in loans to SRC in return for a bribe. He called it a “bad management of public funds" as SRC didn't have the ability to repay the loans and rejected Najib's defense that he was acting in the national interest.
“There is no national interest here, just a national embarrassment," the judge said.
Abdul Karim said Najib’s argument that he was duped by Low into believing the money was part of a donation by the Saudi royal family to keep Najib from being suspicious of the 1MDB plundering was “untenable." Investigators have identified Low as the mastermind behind the looting of 1MDB and he remains at large.
It was “clearly a fabrication" as the money trail clearly showed the funds came from SRC, he said. Najib had knowledge of the source of the funds and “dishonestly converted it for his own use," the judge added.
Evidence during the trial showed a complex trail of ill-gotten money paid for his home renovation, credit card purchases including a Chanel watch bought in Hawaii as a birthday gift for his wife, and disbursements to political parties.
The conviction doesn't affect Najib's current status as a lawmaker pending his appeal, but he cannot contest if an early general election is called. National polls are not due until 2023 but some quarters in UMNO have called for early elections next year.