KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Former Prime Minister Najib Razak was convicted Tuesday of crimes involving the multibillion-dollar looting of a Malaysian state investment fund that brought down his government in a shocking election ouster two years ago.
Najib was calm and stone-faced as he became the first Malaysian leader to be convicted. He has vowed to appeal the verdict that could bring many years in prison.
The ruling in the first of his five corruption trials came five months after Najib’s Malay party returned to government as the biggest bloc in an alliance that took power from the reformist government that ousted Najib's in 2018.
Analysts said the ruling would bolster the prosecution’s case in Najib’s other trials and would signal to the business community the Malaysia’s legal system has strength in tackling international financial crimes. But others cautioned the ruling could be overturned and his political party remains in office.
"I find the accused guilty and convict the accused of all seven charges,” Judge Mohamad Nazlan Ghazali said after spending two hours to read out an elaborate ruling.
After court resumed in the afternoon, Najib’s lawyers argued for a light sentence. The defense said it was “crippled” by the judge’s refusal to delay the sentencing arguments until next week. Prosecutors said the case had tarnished the country as a kleptocracy and sought a deterrent sentence to remind those in high public office that “no one is above the law.”
Speaking from the dock, Najib outlined his achievements during his nine-year tenure and swore in Arabic with God as his witness that he wasn't aware of the 42 million ringgit ($9.8 million) channeled into his bank accounts from SRC International, a former unit of 1MDB.
“I did not demand the 42 million, I did not plan for the 42 million, nor was the 42 million offered to me. There has been no evidence nor witness to this. And I also like to say that I have no knowledge of the 42 million," Najib insisted.
Some of Najib's supporters outside the courthouse cried when they learned of the verdict while others chanted “free bossku” and “long live bossku." The nickname meaning “my boss” was coined for Najib in his social media campaign to reinvent himself as a working-class leader.
Najib, 67, faces between 15 and 20 years plus hefty fines for each of the seven charges and has vowed to fight to the end. He has said he was misled by rogue bankers and the case against him is political.
“I want justice. I want to clear my name," he wrote on Facebook late Monday. “After this, we will go to the Court of Appeal. I am ready." A scion of one of Malaysia’s most prominent political families, he faces 42 charges in five separate trial and could face years in prison.
The current trial involved a charge of abuse of power, three charges of criminal breach of trust and three money laundering charges.
The judge agreed with prosecutors that Najib had “overarching control” of SRC, failed to rebut the allegations against him and that prosecutors had established beyond reasonable doubt that Najib misappropriated money for his own use.
“The conviction would serve as a solid foundation for the prosecution in ensuing IMDB-related trials,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with Singapore’s Institute of International Affairs.
He said the ruling also would strengthen the credibility of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, even though he now relies on Najib’s party for support. Muhyiddin was fired as Najib’s deputy five years ago to the date of Tuesday's verdict for speaking out on the 1MDB scandal.
Najib’s party is the biggest bloc in the current Malay nationalist alliance that has governed since March with a shaky, wafer-thin majority in parliament.
The ruling was “absolutely” good for Malaysia, said analyst Bridget Welsh, honorary research associate with University of Nottingham Malaysia.
“I think that there is a sense of euphoria among the citizens that justice is being served, among the majority of Malaysians,” Welsh said "Keep in mind that majority of Malaysians voted (in 2018) for political change, and the 1MDB case was a catalyst in that. The 1MDB case damaged Malaysia’s reputation, and I think today worked towards restoring that.”
Najib is a political scion whose father and uncle were Malaysia’s second and third prime ministers. Shortly after he took office in 2009, he set up 1MDB to ostensibly accelerate Malaysia’s economic development.
But the fund accumulated billions in debt, and U.S. investigators allege that at least $4.5 billion was stolen from it and laundered by Najib’s associates to finance Hollywood films and buy hotels, a luxury yacht, artwork, jewelry and other extravagances. More than $700 million from the fund allegedly landed in Najib’s bank accounts.
During the trial, Najib was accused of using his position to receive a bribe for approving a government guarantee for billions in loans to SRC, committing criminal breach of trust and accepting proceeds from unlawful activities.
Evidence showed a complex trail of ill-gotten money paid for his home renovation, credit card purchases including a Chanel watch bought in Hawaii as a birthday gift for his wife, and disbursements to political parties.
The judge said the defense's argument that Najib, as premier, was duped by rogue bankers led by Malaysian fugitive financier Low Taek Jho was “too far-fetched" as the two had a close relationship. Investigators have identified Low as the mastermind behind the looting of 1MDB and he remains at large.
Najib testified he assumed the money was part of a donation by the Saudi royal family arranged by Low as a guise to keep Najib from being suspicious of his plundering of the 1MDB fund. The judge debunked that argument in the guilty verdict, finding it an “elaborate but weak fabrication.”
Najib's second and third trials involving some of the remaining charges are ongoing. His wife and several officials from his party and previous government have also been charged with graft related to 1MDB corruption.
“People should not really be celebrating now... we know in Malaysia, many of these politically charged cases, once they get to the appeals court, they get reversed," said James Chin, professor of Asian studies at Australia's University of Tasmania.
“ So the fact that we have today’s guilty verdict doesn’t mean things will change. Najib will still remain an MP (member of parliament) and we have to wait for the appeal court system," Chin added.