In the first of five trials linked to the multibillion dollar 1MDB financial scandal (short for the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal), the former Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, was sentenced to 12 years in prison on Tuesday after being found guilty on seven different charges.
Najib was sentenced to 12 years for one count of abuse of power, 10 years for three charges of criminal breach of trust, as well as 10 years for three additional money laundering charges, which are to be served concurrently. He will also be required to pay a fine of US$49.3 million (210 million Malaysian ringgit).
“After considering all evidence in this trial, I find that the prosecution has successfully proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt,” ruled Judge Mohamad Nazlan Mohamad Ghazali of the Kuala Lumpur High Court.
Najib had pleaded not guilty to all charges and has denied any wrongdoing in relation to the scandal, in which US$4.5 billion was allegedly stolen from the 1MDB state fund which was originally established to promote development.
The scam was deeply felt by the citizens of Malaysia, as it plunged the developing nation into crippling debt and tarnished the country’s reputation as a kleptocracy.
“For over a decade the 1MDB scandal has been a blight on our nation’s reputation and has been the source of much anguish for the Malaysian people,” said opposition leader of Parliament, Anwar Ibrahim. “Money which should have been utilized for development and assisting the poor was diverted to illicit gains benefiting a former prime minister and his friends.”
Around US$9.8 million (42 million Malaysian ringgit) of these funds are believed to have been channeled directly into the former prime minister’s personal bank accounts.
Close associates of Najib were also believed to have been involved in the scandal.
Najib’s stepson, Riza Aziz, the producer of the Hollywood blockbuster “The Wolf of Wall Street,” was accused of receiving US$248 million from the government fund, although charges of money laundering against him have since been dropped. A further US$270 million worth of cash, jewelry, designer handbags, tiaras and other luxury goods were seized from the properties of Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansour, who faces corruption charges of her own.
Before the sentencing, lead prosecutor Datuk Sithambaram called for a ruling that would act “as a precedent for all in public office that no one is above the law.”
However, Najib’s legal team appealed for leniency, seeking to delay the sentencing. They pointed to his successes as a public official and insisted that he was not aware of his personal account balance, nor of the origin of the funds. Najib had previously argued that he was a victim of the scam himself and that the money he had received was a gift from a Saudi royal.
“I did not demand the 42 million, I did not plan for the 42 million, nor was the 42 million offered to me. There has been no evidence nor witness to this. And I also like to say that I have no knowledge of the 42 million,” Najib said.
Despite this, the judge stated that he found that “the defense has not succeeded in rebutting the presumption on the balance of probabilities or raising reasonable doubt on the charge against the accused.”
“It would be extraordinary that the accused as the then-prime minister and finance minister did not know it,” he added.
The prosecution argued that Najib played an active role in the scandal and gave direct instructions for the funds to be deposited into his accounts. The funds were believed to be used for political funding, the purchase of luxury goods and renovations of his property.
Following the sentencing, Najib insisted that he would “continue the effort to clear my name.”
“Surely, I am not satisfied with the result,” he said as he exited the court. “But within our system, the high court is the first court and the decision was only made by one judge. We have the benefit of an appeal.”
The final ruling was a victory for many who believe that justice had been served.
Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate with the University of Nottingham Malaysia, said that “I think that there is a sense of euphoria among the citizens … Keep in mind that [the] majority of Malaysians voted [in 2018] for political change, and the 1MBD case was a catalyst in that. The 1MDB case damaged Malaysia’s reputation, and I think today worked towards restoring that.”
However, some are still convinced that the sentencing will not ensure that Najib gets put away.
James Chin, a professor of Asian studies at Australia’s University of Tasmania said that “People should not really be celebrating now … we know in Malaysia, many of these politically charged cases, once they get to the appeals court, they get reversed.”
“So the fact that we have today’s guilty verdict doesn’t mean things will change. Najib will still remain an MP (a member of parliament) and we have to wait for the appeal court system,” he added. “I expect Najib to appeal, and he will probably win the appeal. In the long term, I expect Najib to get away with it.”
Lim Wei Jiet, a Malaysian constitutional lawyer, said that even though the sentences are still pending an appeal, Malaysians can still celebrate Tuesday’s small victories.
“It is not over yet. Having said that, it doesn’t mean we can’t stop and appreciate that this is a small step in the rejuvenation of the rule of law in Malaysia,” he said.
“Only two years back, there was a state-sanctioned attempt to silent any form of dissent regarding 1MDB. Today, at the very least, there is some form of vindication for those who dared to stand up against the powers that be, often at great personal risk.”
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