KUALA LUMPUR: The Malaysian Court of Appeal upheld on Wednesday former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s 12-year jail sentence for his role in a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal at the 1Malaysia Development Berhad state investment fund.
Najib was sentenced by a high court in July 2020 and fined $50 million on charges of criminal breach of trust, money laundering and abuse of power relating to illegally receiving RM42 million ($10 million) from SRC International, a former subsidiary of the now-defunct 1MDB.
Investigators allege at least $4.5 billion was embezzled from 1MDB and laundered by Najib’s associates. Najib has pleaded not guilty and consistently denied any wrongdoing, saying he had been misled by Malaysian fugitive financier Low Taek Jho. The scandal brought down Najib’s government in 2018.
As the Court of Appeal upheld the 2020 verdict, lead judge Abdul Karim Abdul Jalil said the case was a “national embarrassment.”
“This is not something that can be said to have been done in the national interest,” he said while reading the decision. “There is no national interest here, just national embarrassment.”
The court had agreed to the defense’s request to stay the jail term pending a final appeal. Until then, Najib will remain out on bail.
The former prime minister and his legal counsel, Mohammed Shafee Abdullah, attended the court proceedings via a video call, as they had reportedly been in touch with contacts who tested positive for COVID-19.
In an online press conference afterward, Najib said he was “very disappointed” with the judgment.
“I would like to reiterate and say I didn’t know, nor did I ask or …direct anyone for RM42 million to my account,” he said.
Lead prosecutor V. Sithambaram told reporters that a decision in Najib’s final appeal will be made by the federal court, the country’s top court, within the next six to nine months, but the appeal court’s verdict showed the conviction “according to law and facts.”
The 68-year-old politician remains a key figure in the ruling United Malays National Organization party, which has led coalition governments since independence from Britain in 1957.
Toppled in 2018 over the 1MDB scandal, the party returned to power in August.
While the Court of Appeal verdict may not dent Najib’s popularity, it deals a blow to his possible comeback to the country’s top office in the next general election scheduled to take place by 2023.
“In terms of popularity, I don’t think there will be any effect, as the supporters will support Najib regardless of his conviction,” Dr. Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, told Arab News.
“However, if his conviction is not reversed by the time of the next general election, he might not be able to run. If he cannot run, he cannot become prime minister again.” Dozens of Najib’s supporters turned up at the Court of Appeal in Putrajaya as the verdict was announced.
One of them, Amaruddin, 67, who goes by one name, said he had traveled 200 km from Terengganu to stand in solidarity with Najib, whom he believes has fallen prey to political persecution.
“Najib is innocent and has been charged because he was vilified by the previous government,” Amaruddin said. “He will get out of this unscathed.”