Malaysia halves ex-PM Najib Razak’s jail term in 1MDB corruption scandal

Najib, the first prime minister in the country’s history to be jailed, remains on trial in multiple cases related to the fund.

Malaysia's former prime minister Najib Razak (C) speaks to his supporters during a break in his final appeal trial outside the Federal Court in Putrajaya, Malaysia.
Malaysia's former Prime Minister Najib Razak [Ahmad Luqman Ismail/EPA]

Malaysia has halved the sentence of disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was convicted and sent to jail for 12 years for corruption in the multibillion-dollar 1MDB scandal.

Najib is set to be released on August 23, 2028, and fines imposed on him were reduced to 50 million ringgit ($10.6m) from 210 million ringgit ($44.5m), the pardons board said in a statement on Friday.

If he fails to pay the fine the jail term will be extended by a year, the board added.

Najib, the first leader in the country’s history to be jailed, remains on trial in multiple cases related to 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state fund he established as prime minister to spur economic development.

But investigators say it was instead plundered to buy the Equanimity superyacht, high-end properties, and finance the production of the film, The Wolf of Wall Street starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Some $4.5bn was stolen, with hundreds of millions ending up in accounts linked to Najib, according to investigators in Malaysia and the United States.

Najib was acquitted of audit tampering in connection with 1MDB, but has not shown any contrition for the scandal. He has sought to focus attention on Jho Low, the Malaysian financier who is accused of masterminding the scheme and is now a fugitive.

‘Kleptocracy at its worst’

The British-educated son of Malay nobility, Najib was prime minister from 2009 until 2018 when public fury over the scandal led to his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party losing power for the first time since Malaysia secured its independence in 1957.

The US Department of Justice described the 1MDB case as “kleptocracy at its worst”.

The scandal spawned investigations in six countries and raised questions over the conduct of investment banking giant Goldman Sachs, which came under scrutiny for two bond sales – together worth $6.5bn – that it organised for the fund.

While Malaysia agreed to a settlement with Goldman, its former head of investment banking in Malaysia, Roger Ng, was jailed for 10 years last March after he was convicted of helping his boss, Tim Leissner, loot billions of dollars from the fund, launder the proceeds and bribe government officials to win business.

Leissner pleaded guilty and testified against Ng as part of a cooperation deal with US authorities and has still to be sentenced.

Malaysian prosecutors agreed to a $107.3m settlement with Najib’s stepson Riza Aziz in May 2020, dropping money laundering charges against him. Riza set up Red Granite Productions that produced The Wolf of Wall Street.

‘Not just a petty thief’

Najib applied for a royal pardon in August 2022 shortly after his conviction and his sentence was upheld by Malaysia’s highest court.

His application was among five other pardon bids reviewed on Monday by the board, chaired by King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, who is from Pahang, the same central state as Najib.

Sultan Abdullah ended his five-year reign on January 30 under the country’s rotating system of monarchy. He was succeeded by Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar from the southern state of Johor.

Malaysia’s king plays a largely ceremonial role but can pardon convicted people among discretionary powers granted by the federal constitution.

The board did not give a reason for reducing Najib’s sentence, but its decision is likely to renew concerns about the way in which politics might be playing into Malaysia’s fight against corruption.

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim campaigned on an anticorruption platform but allied with the corruption-tainted UMNO to form a government in November 2022, after an election that ended in a hung parliament.

The reduction in Najib’s sentence comes amid accusations that Anwar’s administration is failing to push ahead with promised reforms after a number of corruption cases linked to Najib and other UMNO leaders were dropped last year.

The decision was greeted with dismay by many Malaysians.

Cynthia Gabriel, a prominent campaigner against corruption, called it a “travesty of justice” in a post on X, where “Najib” was a trending topic. “We are talking kleptocracy here. Please don’t take us for fools,” she wrote.

Analysts said that being seen as going easy on Najib – whose conviction was upheld through two appeals – would not help Malaysia’s image and was likely to put further pressure on the ringgit, the region’s worst-performing currency last year.

“He’s not just a petty thief, there’s so much that was taken,” Serina Rahman, a lecturer in the Southeast Asian Studies department at the National University of Singapore, told Al Jazeera ahead of the announcement.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies