Malaysia’s Appeal Court on Wednesday upheld the conviction 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 sentenced to 12 years in jail after a high court ruled in July 2020 that he was guilty 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.
The ruling by the three-member appellate bench was delivered via a Zoom hearing after a defence 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.” Najib, who looked sombre when the verdict was read out, can still challenge the decision in the Federal Court, the country’s top court. The appellate court approved the defence’s request to stay the conviction pending a final appeal. Najib will remain out on bail until then.
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Najib, who set up 1MDB shortly after taking office in 2009, has denied all wrongdoing and 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 has just given birth.
Despite his graft conviction, Najib, 68, 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.
Defence 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 channelled 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 service the loans and rejected Najib’s defence that he was acting in the national interest.
“There is no national interest here, just 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.
Najib faces a total of 42 charges in five separate trials, some of which are ongoing. His wife is also on trial for graft.