by M. Jegathesan
Agence France Presse
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AFP) — Malaysia’s disgraced former leader Najib Razak pleaded not guilty to all charges against him as he went on trial Wednesday over a multi-billion-dollar fraud.
The 65-year-old faced the first of several trials over his alleged involvement in the looting of sovereign wealth fund 1MDB, a state investment vehicle established to develop the economy of the Southeast Asian nation.
The former premier and his cronies are accused of plundering billions of dollars from the fund and spending it on everything from high-end real estate to artworks and a luxury yacht.
He had been tipped to win another term in office easily last year and extend his coalition’s six-decade stranglehold on power, only to be soundly defeated by his former boss, Mahathir Mohamad, who rode a wave of public anger over 1MDB to the premiership.
In the months that followed, once-dormant investigations into the controversy were relaunched and Najib was hit with dozens of corruption charges linked to the plundering of the fund.
A small crowd of supporters was waiting for Najib as he arrived at the Kuala Lumpur court ahead of his trial, and he prayed with them for a few minutes before entering the building to shouts of “Long Live Najib”.
Dressed in a dark blue suit, the former leader — who was premier for almost a decade — looked calm and smiled as he took his seat in the dock. His defence team made an 11th-hour bid to get proceedings delayed but the judge ruled against them.
He denied seven charges of corruption and money-laundering over claims he pocketed 42 million ringgit ($10.3 million) from SRC International, a former 1MDB unit.
It is only a fraction of the money allegedly stolen from 1MDB. Hundreds of millions of dollars are believed to have ended up in Najib’s accounts alone.
He has consistently denied any wrongdoing.
Najib was initially due to stand trial in February, but appeals by his defence team over procedural matters saw his case put on hold until a judge last week ruled the trial should finally proceed.
– Time to ‘face justice’ –
While many of his co-suspects have been caught and charged in Malaysian courts, the alleged mastermind behind the 1MDB scandal, playboy financier Jho Low, is still at large.
Fahmi Reza, a graphic artist who was jailed and fined for depicting Najib in a caricature as a sinister clown, said it was the ex-premier’s turn to “face justice”.
“Today, it is your turn to be dragged here to face justice for the crime of corruption and abuse of power during your reign,” he said in a tweet.
Najib’s mentor-turned-nemesis Mahathir, now 93 and in his second stint in office, has pledged to bring the younger man to justice and bring back the huge sums of cash stolen from 1MDB.
The US Department of Justice, which is investigating the controversy as money was allegedly laundered through the US financial system, believes $4.5 billion in total was looted from 1MDB.
Malaysia has also charged Wall Street titan Goldman Sachs over the scandal, alleging the bank and its former employees stole billions of dollars from 1MDB.
Goldman units and two ex-bankers are accused of misappropriating $2.7 billion, bribing officials and giving false statements in relation to bond issues they arranged for the fund. The bank has vowed to fight the charges.
© Agence France-Presse