Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is seeking to remove the top judge from his final appeal against a corruption conviction and 12-year jail sentence in a case linked to the 1MDB financial scandal.
The move on Tuesday is seen as the latest bid by Najib to forestall a final verdict from the Federal Court, which could otherwise potentially deliver its judgement on the same day or set a new date for its decision.
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In an affidavit read out in court, Najib’s lawyer Hisyam Teh Poh Teik said Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat must recuse herself from the five-member panel hearing the appeal because of “a real danger of bias” due to social media comments made by her husband in 2018.
Hisyam said Zamani Ibrahim had, in a Facebook post right after Najib’s removal in 2018 general elections, concluded that the former prime minister “had siphoned sovereign government funds” into his personal account.
“Because of the spousal relationship … there might be unconscious bias. In the sense that his opinions, his views would affect [the chief justice’s] findings in respect of the appeal right now,” the lawyer added.
The court began hearing the new application, which the prosecution called a delaying tactic.
“This application is mala fide, done deliberately to scuttle the progress of this case,” said lead prosecutor V Sithambaram.
Critics say Najib has repeatedly tried to delay closure of the case, which was first brought on in 2018.
Najib changed his legal team just three weeks before the final appeals process began last week. His lawyer Hisyam tried to quit last week, saying he did not have enough time to prepare, but the court refused to discharge him.
Hisyam then said he would not make any new submissions in the appeal. Najib has protested that his right to a fair hearing was at stake as he was left with no effective counsel or proper representation in such a case.
The hearing then began on Thursday. The prosecution ended their arguments on Friday, and his defence is due to start on Tuesday.
But at the start of the hearing, Hisyam told the Federal Court the defence has made an application to recuse Maimun and for a new panel to hear the appeal.
Maimun, Malaysia’s first female chief justice 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 the top judge.
Hundreds of Najib’s supporters gathered outside the court on Tuesday, with some shouting “Allahu Akbar” and “Justice for Najib”.
Najib, 69, was found guilty in July 2020 of criminal breach of trust, abuse of power, and money laundering for illegally receiving about $10m from SRC International, a former unit of state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
Najib, who pleaded not guilty, was sentenced to 12 years of jail and a 210 million ringgit ($46.8m) fine.
Prosecutors have said some $4.5bn was stolen from 1MDB – co-founded by Najib as premier in 2009 – in a wide-ranging scandal that has implicated officials and financial institutions around the world.
Najib, who faces several trials over the allegations, has consistently denied wrongdoing.
In his submissions to the court, Najib listed 94 reasons why he should be acquitted, including that lower courts had erred in some of their findings.
Prosecutors have said Najib was aware that the funds received in his account were proceeds from “an unlawful activity,” and had exercised his position as prime minister, finance minister and adviser to SRC International to obtain the funds.
Despite the corruption conviction, Najib remains politically influential in Malaysia. His United Malays National Organisation leads the current government after the defections of legislators caused the collapse of the reformist government that won the 2018 polls.