A Malaysian appeals court on Wednesday upheld former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s conviction for corruption in the first case related to the multi-billion dollar scandal at state fund 1MDB.
Najib, whose term as prime minister ended with defeat at the 2018 elections, was found guilty of diverting an estimated 42 million ringgit ($9.88m) from SRC International, a division of 1MDB, into his personal bank accounts in July last year, and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
The appeals court said it agreed with the High Court’s verdict.
“We dismiss the motion and affirm the conviction on all sentences,” Judge Abdul Karim Abdul Jalil said, announcing the unanimous decision of the three judges who made up the appeals panel in the administrative capital of Putrajaya.
The 68-year-old had been allowed bail pending appeal, and the court agreed he should remain free while he appeals to the Federal Court, Malaysia’s highest court.
The seven charges in the SRC case involve allegations of abuse of power, several counts of money laundering and criminal breach of trust.
Both Najib, his lead counsel, Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, and the other members of the defence team appeared via video call from their homes because of the coronavirus. Dressed in a dark suit, the former prime minister showed little emotion as Judge Abdul Karim Abdul Jalil read out the panel’s findings.
Referring to the defence’s claim during the appeal that Najib had been acting in the national interest, the judge was forthright.
Noting the flow of money into Najib’s personal bank accounts Judge Abdul Karim told the court: “This is not something that can be said to have been done in the national interest. There is no national interest here. Just national embarrassment.”
The court decision comes as Najib attempts a comeback in a country that has been through three prime ministers since the 1MDB scandal brought down his government. He remains popular within the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which is now back in power after 2018’s defeat.
In recent days, Najib and his legal team have sought to introduce new evidence, and on Tuesday asked for a postponement because one member on the team had tested positive for COVID-19. The judge denied the request, and dismissed the application to accept new evidence at an online hearing.
“The appellate court appears to be impressed by the reasoning and thoroughness of the trial judge’s extensive grounds of judgement and thus decided not to disturb them and let the conviction stand,” political analyst Oh Ei Sun told Al Jazeera. “As it is a unanimous decision, Najib would face an uphill struggle in convincing the Federal Court in his next appeal to reverse the judgements of both the trial and appellate courts.”
‘I didn’t know’
In reaching his guilty verdict last year, Judge Mohamad Nazlan Ghazali said Najib, who was both prime minister and finance minister at the time of the offences, “acted outside the limits of the permissible conduct” in the approval of loans, which later became a source of funds transferred to his account.
He said Najib “benefitted” from the approval of the loans, and that the defence had failed to raise reasonable doubt over the offence of abuse of power.
During the appeal, the defence argued that Najib did not know the money was going into his accounts or that it originated from SRC. They claimed Najib was misled by Malaysian financier Jho Low and other 1MDB officials into believing that the funds in his account were a donation from the Saudi royal family.
Low, whose whereabouts remain unknown, has denied wrongdoing.
Speaking after the decision, Najib, the son of Malaysia’s famously frugal second prime minister, said he was “very disappointed” at the outcome and insisted he did not know anything about the money in his account.
“As a Muslim, I have sworn in the name of Allah that I didn’t know, nor did ask, neither direct anyone for the money,” he said.
Shafee, his lawyer, said he was “quite shocked” at the outcome of the appeal, and that describing what happened as a “national embarrassment” was “unnecessary”. He said there were 14 areas of concern they would be raising at the Federal Court.
About 50 supporters of the former prime minister travelled to Putrajaya, some wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the word ‘bossku’ (my boss). Protesting Najib’s innocence they said he was being “persecuted”.
“We are not surprised or shocked about the decision,” said Rosnah Ila, a businesswoman who was among the small crowd. “This is not a fair justice system, He is persecuted without due evidence. Let justice be done in the eyes of Allah. Those people who have been against Najib will pay a hefty price.”
The United States Department of Justice alleges $4.5bn in government money was drained from 1MDB during Najib’s term in office.
The former prime minister received more than $1bn of the 1MDB funds, according to prosecutors, and faces a total of 42 criminal charges related to the scandal.
Najib is the first Malaysian leader to be found guilty of corruption.
His appeal to the federal court could take a further six to nine months, Sithambaram said.
With reporting by Ushar Daniele in Putrajaya.