Jailed Malaysian former Prime Minister Najib Razak has returned to court for a second corruption trial over the looting of the 1MDB state fund.
The hearing on Thursday came as a veteran Malaysian politician said Najib was likely to receive a royal pardon and be released from the 12-year jail sentence for corruption that he began this week.
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Najib, 69, was imprisoned on Tuesday after the country’s top court rejected his final appeal in his first corruption case linked to the 1MDB fund. In that case, he was found to have illegally received $10m from a unit of 1MDB.
His imprisonment comes four years after his defeat in an election over the scandal and was celebrated by many citizens as justice served.
Wearing a dark blue suit, red tie and face mask, Najib sat impassively in the dock without handcuffs as the hearing began. He was earlier brought into the court complex in a tinted police vehicle under heavy security to avoid a crowd of media waiting to catch a glimpse of him.
Najib’s daughter, Nooryana Najwa Najib, wrote on Instagram late on Wednesday that a team of lawyers met her father earlier in the day and that his “fighting spirit is still strong”.
She said Najib has been given his basic needs, and that he was adapting to his prison life.
The current trial began in August 2019 and is the most significant as it ties Najib directly to the 1MDB scandal that has prompted investigations in the United States and several other countries.
Prosecutors allege Najib pilfered billions of dollars from 1MDB through an “elaborate charade” and then sought to cover his tracks. Najib says he was misled into believing it was a donation from the Saudi Arabian royal family.
Najib faces four charges of abusing his power to obtain 2.3 billion ringgit (more than $700m in the exchange rate at the time) from 1MDB between 2011 and 2014, and 21 counts of money laundering involving the same amount. He faces up to 20 years in prison for each count of abuse of power and up to five years for each of the money laundering charges.
1MDB was a development fund that Najib set up shortly after taking power in 2009. Investigators allege more than $4.5bn was stolen from the fund and laundered by Najib’s associates through layers of bank accounts in the US and other countries to finance Hollywood films and extravagant purchases that included hotels, a luxury yacht, artworks and jewellery.
As Thursday’s hearing began, Malaysia’s veteran politician Mahathir Mohamad, who helped bring Najib down, issued a statement saying the disgraced former prime minister was likely to receive a royal pardon.
“For Najib, it is highly likely that he will be pardoned after being imprisoned,” the 97-year-old said in a statement.
He did not elaborate.
The palace of King Al-Sultan Abdullah, which received a petition for a pardon from Najib loyalists a day earlier, did not immediately respond to a Reuters news agency request for comment on Mahathir’s remark.
Najib is believed to be close to some of Malaysia’s royals, and in May, Najib’s social media posts showed him attending Eid celebrations with the king.
But, there has been no indication so far on how the palace would respond to any pardon application by Najib, who held power for nine years until 2018.
Nor has there been any sign yet of how Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob would regard a pardon for his old party leader, as he seeks to rehabilitate the image of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
Najib has denied any wrongdoing, and has painted himself as the victim of a political vendetta by his former mentor.
Mahathir was already Malaysia’s longest serving prime minister when he first retired in 2003 after 22 years at the helm. He campaigned for Najib and UMNO during the 2013 election but turned against his former protege as the scale of corruption at 1MDB began to emerge.
Leading an opposition alliance of unlikely bedfellows, Mahathir defeated the UMNO-led coalition, removing it from power for the first time since the formation of Malaysia six decades earlier.
Reinstalled as prime minister, Mahathir reopened probes into 1MDB that led to Najib facing a total of 42 charges.
Mahathir subsequently resigned amid political turmoil as his alliance fell apart.