KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin was charged Friday with corruption and money laundering, making him Malaysia's second ex-leader to be indicted after leaving office.
Muhyiddin, 75, pleaded innocent to four charges of abusing his power to obtain 232.5 million ringgit ($51.4 million) bribes for his party and two charges of money laundering involving 195 million ringgit ($43 million). His party said he is expected to face an additional charge on Monday.
Muhyiddin vowed to clear his name, slamming the charges as an “evil slander" to embarrass him and crush his Islamic-dominated opposition ahead of state elections. He denied abusing his power to award contracts to selected ethnic Malay contractors in return for bribes, and to approve an appeal by a business tycoon on the cancellation of his tax exemption.
“It is an organized political persecution,” Muhyiddin told a news conference after he was released on bail. “I accept this charge against me with patience. ... I choose to stand upright on the principles that I hold. This is the price that I have to pay."
Muhyiddin was first arrested Thursday and released later in the day by the anti-graft agency, which questioned him a second time over government stimulus projects for Malay contractors during the COVID-19 pandemic. Outside the court building Friday, some supporters chanted and carried banners that read “malicious intent.”
Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim rejected accusations that the charges were politically motivated and noted the investigations were carried out independently by the anti-graft agency. After taking power in November, Anwar ordered a review of government projects approved by past administrations including Muhyiddin, who led Malaysia from March 2020 until August 2021. Anwar has said many of the projects awarded were overpriced and given without tender.
Two senior members from Muhyiddin's Bersatu party were recently charged with graft. The anti-graft agency has also frozen Bersatu's party accounts.
Anwar and Muhyiddin had fought for the premiership after the November general elections produced a hung parliament. Muhyiddin's alliance includes a conservative Islamist party that won stronger-than-expected support from Malays, who account for about two-thirds of Malaysia's 33 million people. The king later appointed Anwar as premier after he formed a unity government with several smaller parties, but his strength will be tested in six state elections due in the next few months.
Muhyiddin was the second former leader to be charged after ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was hit with multiple charges after he lost in 2018 general elections. Najib began a 12-year prison term in August after losing his final appeal in the first of several graft trials related to the looting of the 1MDB state development fund.
If Muhyiddin is found guilty, he faces up to 20 years in prison for each of the corruption charges, 15 years each for money laundering and fines.