Malaysian ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak has begun a 12-year prison sentence after losing his final appeal in a corruption case linked to the looting of the 1MDB state fund, with the country’s top court unanimously upholding his conviction and sentence.
Najib became Malaysia’s first former leader to be imprisoned when he was whisked away on Tuesday to the Kajang prison on the outskirts of the capital Kuala Lumpur after the verdict.
Opposition leaders, activists and many citizens hailed the court’s swift ruling in the appeal hearing on Tuesday, calling it a victory for Malaysians who voted in 2018 to remove Najib’s government and bring him to justice.
The five-member Federal Court panel said it found the High Court’s decision was correct 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,” she said.
The court ordered Najib, who has been out on bail pending appeals since his sentence in 2020, to begin his time behind bars.
He also must pay a 210 million Malaysian ringgit ($47m) fine.
Najib appeared in shock after the verdict was read. He was immediately surrounded by his family and supporters. His lawyer later told reporters they may seek a review of the court’s decision.
“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 Asian 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.”
Najib faces a total of 42 charges in five separate trials linked to 1MDB, and his wife is also on trial on corruption charges.
He also remains politically influential. His United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) political party leads the current government after defections of MPs caused the collapse of the reformist government that won the 2018 polls.
Ei Sun Oh, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said the swiftness of the ruling was remarkable.
“The speed of the judgement being delivered by Malaysia’s top court that was, indeed, quite astounding,” he told Al Jazeera, speaking from Singapore.
UMNO, as a political party, now has a choice to make regarding its relationship with the jailed former prime minister, he said.
“The UMNO party will also have to ponder very carefully as to whether they will continue to align with him in terms of claiming innocence. Or, they would draw a clear line, a demarcation, between the party and him, such that, for example, the party will have a fresh image,” he told Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera’s Florence Looi, reporting from Kuala Lumpur, said earlier that the ruling had judicial and political significance.
“He will be headed to prison and it will likely happen today, becoming the first former prime minister to go to jail,” Looi said.
“The judgement also allays fears that the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), to which Najib belongs, would interfere in the judicial process.”
The Federal Court’s decision on Tuesday was handed down after a tribunal threw out a last-minute move by Najib’s lawyers to recuse the chief justice from hearing the case, alleging bias on her part.
“We saw Najib speak from the dock where he attempted to portray himself as a victim of justice. He sought to paint the high court judge who heard the initial case as biased,” Al Jazeera’s Looi said.
“Ultimately, the five-member panel dismissed those arguments.”
The Al Jazeera correspondent said Najib long sought to portray himself as a victim of political persecution. “That argument will hold no water now after the verdict given that his party is in power.”
Najib is a UK-educated son of one of Malaysia’s founding fathers who had been groomed for the prime minister’s post from a young age.
The final ruling on the jail sentence also came four years after his long-ruling party’s shock election defeat in 2018, during which allegations he and his friends embezzled billions of dollars from state fund 1MDB were key campaign issues.
“This [verdict] is important because remember there are several other cases involving the 1MDB that are still ongoing against him. This particular case involves a former subsidiary of 1MDB and it’s long been regarded as the less complex case in the whole corruption saga,” Al Jazeera’s Looi said.
A lower court in July 2020 found Najib guilty of abuse of power, money laundering and criminal breach of trust over the transfer of 42 million ringgit ($10.1m) from SRC International, a former unit of 1MDB, to his personal bank account.
An appellate court in December denied his appeal against the ruling, prompting him to go to the Federal Court as a final recourse.