Najib Razak becomes 1st Malaysian leader to be imprisoned after losing corruption sentence appeal

Malaysia’s Najib Razak will become the country’s first former prime minister to be jailed, after losing his final appeal on Tuesday in a graft case linked to the looting of the 1MDB state fund.

The top court unanimously upheld his conviction and 12-year prison sentence, meaning Najib will have to begin serving his sentence immediately. He left the courthouse after the verdict and was reportedly taken to prison.

The five-member Federal Court panel said it found the High Court judge was right in his judgment and that Najib’s appeal was “devoid of any merits.”

“This is a simple and straightforward case of abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering,” said Chief Justice Maimun Tuan Mat, who read out the verdict.

“We are unable to conclude that any of the findings of the High Court, as affirmed by the Court of Appeal, were perverse or plainly wrong so as to warrant appellate intervention. We agree that the defence is so inherently inconsistent and incredible that it does not raise a reasonable doubt on the prosecution case.”

A car carrying former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak leaves the Federal Court in Putrajaya after his appeal was rejected. (Hasnoor Hussain/Reuters)

The court ordered Najib to begin his time behind bars. He also must pay a $47-million US ($61-million Cdn) fine.

Development fund set up in 2009

1MDB was a development fund that Najib set up shortly after taking power in 2009. Investigators allege at least $4.5 billion US ($5.8 billion Cdn) was stolen from the fund and laundered by Najib’s associates. Najib was found guilty in 2020 of abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering for illegally receiving $9.4 million ($12.2 million Cdn) from SRC International, a former unit of 1MDB.

Financier Jho Low is a fugitive in connection with the case. He is among various recipients of the siphoned funds, which U.S. prosecutors have alleged were used to buy luxury assets and real estate, a Picasso painting, a private jet, a superyacht, hotels, jewelry and to help finance the 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street.

Najib, 69, has maintained he is innocent and had been out on bail pending his appeals. Just before the court delivered its verdict, he stood up in the dock to make a statement protesting the top court’s series of refusals last week to postpone the appeal hearings.

Najib said he felt he was “unfairly treated” and that his case was rushed through. He pointed out that a leaked verdict by the Federal Court had been posted on a website and said if this was true, it would be “judicial misconduct of the highest order.”

Judge in the case subject to online threats

Najib appeared in shock after the verdict was read. He was immediately surrounded by his family and supporters.

“This is a historic moment for Malaysia, where the most senior leader has actually now faced an unprecedented moment of political accountability,” said Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert at Malaysia’s Nottingham University. “For this decision, which is the first of many cases involving this particular scandal, to move in this particular direction really is a testimony to the rule of law in Malaysia, and the strengthening of the demands for the rule of law in Malaysia.”

Two women wearing headcoverings are shown.
Supporters of former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak react outside the Federal Court building on Tuesday. (Lai Seng Sin/Reuters)

Earlier Tuesday, Najib sought to remove Maimun from the case, citing possible bias because her husband had made a negative Facebook posting about Najib’s leadership shortly after his ouster in 2018 general elections. But the judges dismissed Najib’s application.

Maimun, Malaysia’s first female chief justice who was appointed in 2019, has come under attack on social media from Najib’s supporters. Police arrested a man over the weekend in connection with death threats made against her.   

Wife also in legal jeopardy

The British-educated Najib was born into Malaysia’s political elite. His father was the country’s second prime minister and his uncle was the third.

He was thrust into politics in 1976 after his father died, becoming Malaysia’s youngest lawmaker at age 22, and the youngest-ever deputy minister two years later. He became prime minister in 2009 as a reformer but his term was tainted by the 1MDB scandal that sparked investigations in the U.S. and several other countries.

Rosmah Mansor, wife of former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, is shown Tuesday in Putrajaya. Mansor also faces charges in the sprawling scandal. (Hasnoor Hussain/The Associated Press)

Najib faces a total of 42 charges in five separate trials linked to 1MDB, and his wife is also on trial on corruption charges.

Despite the legal troubles, he remains politically influential, with hundreds of supporters showing up Tuesday outside the court. His United Malays National Organization leads the current government after defections of lawmakers caused the collapse of the reformist government that won the 2018 polls.

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