Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has been charged with abuse of power and money laundering in connection with the awarding of government contracts during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Muhyiddin, who led the country from March 2020 through the worst of the pandemic, pleaded not guilty to the six charges at a Kuala Lumpur court on Friday morning.
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The charges were filed after Muhyiddin was questioned by investigators from Malaysia’s anti-corruption agency for a number of hours on Thursday over a government support programme that his government introduced to help building contractors during the coronavirus lockdown.
He faces four counts of abuse of power involving 232.5 million ringgit ($51.40 million), and two counts of money laundering involving 195 million ringgit.
Muhyiddin, whose ethnic Malay dominated Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition lost a close-fought election to Anwar Ibrahim’s multi-ethnic rival in November, has previously called the investigation politically motivated.
He is the second former leader to face corruption charges after Najib Razak who was prime minister until May 2018 when his once dominant Barisan Nasional coalition under the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) lost power for the first time amid popular revulsion over the multi-billion dollar scandal at state fund 1MDB.
Najib began a 12-year prison sentence on 1MDB-related charges last August after Malaysia’s top court dismissed his final appeal. He is also facing other a number of other cases related to alleged wrongdoing at the fund.
Muhyiddin, who was a long time member of UMNO before he quit over the 1MDB scandal, faces as many as 15 years in jail if found guilty of money laundering, up to 20 years for abuse of power as well as potentially hefty fines.
Dozens of people gathered at the court to show their support for Muhyiddin with some wearing bandanas emblazoned with the word ‘Abah’ (father), which was how Muhyiddin referred to himself during the pandemic. Senior colleagues from his Bersatu party were also at court.
Hamzah Zainuddin, the party’s secretary general and a former home minister, told reporters outside the court the charges amounted to “selective prosecution”.
The prosecution relates to allegations that the contractors paid money to Bersatu in exchange for projects.
“(Muhyiddin) is not involved at all,” Hamzah said. “Many people give funds to the party.”
On becoming prime minister, Anwar said he would review billions of dollars of government projects that were awarded during Muhyiddin’s administration, including COVID-19 relief programmes.
He says that he has not interfered in any corruption investigations involving Muhyiddin, leaving it to law enforcement agencies to handle.
Muhyiddin was granted bail of 2 million Malaysian ringgit ($442,674) by the judge and asked to surrender his passport.
Muhyiddin became Malaysian prime minister after an internal power struggle within the reformist coalition that came to power in May 2018.
He imposed a strict COVID-19 lockdown weeks after taking office and sought to impose a state of emergency amid questions over the true extent of his support in parliament.
UMNO, led by Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, is now part of Anwar’s coalition although Zahid is himself on trial for corruption.