Corruption trial of former Malaysian PM Najib Razak delayed

PHOTO: The Star/Asia News Network

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's corruption trial has been put on hold, after the country's Court of Appeal approved a last-minute application from his lawyers for a stay of proceedings.

Najib, who is accused of playing a key role in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal that saw billions of dollars siphoned out of the sovereign wealth fund, is currently facing more than 40 charges of graft.

His first trial on seven of these charges was supposed to start on Tuesday, with the prosecution having already issued subpoenas to a host of witnesses, according to reports.

However, Najib's legal team has been successful with an eleventh-hour application to delay the trial, pending the results of an appeal linked to the transfer of the matter to the High Court from a lower court.

A Court of Appeal panel comprised of judges Ahmadi Haji Asnawi, Mohamad Zabidin Mohd Diah and Yew Jen Kie made the decision. Judge Ahmadi said that the defence had shown there to be "special circumstances" allowing for a stay of proceedings, and that there was no evidence of delaying tactics by the defence.

No new date for the trial can be set until after the appeal has been heard.

Earlier in the day, lawyer Shafee Abdullah said that the postponement on a technicality was based on the argument that there was "no longer any case in [the] High Court" and that the process would have to "start all over again".

The decision to halt proceedings is a further blow to the Attorney General's Chambers, which was already taking flak from lawyers and lawmakers after an internal letter that implied bias was leaked to the public.

The letter, which quickly went viral on social media, was written by Solicitor General III Mohamad Hanafiah Zakaria, who instructed other deputy public prosecutors to object to postponements or delays of cases linked to the previous "kleptocratic government". In Malaysia, the third solicitor general assists the attorney general and is in charge of litigation, including prosecution and trials.

This internal directive has raised questions about the independence of Malaysia's public prosecutor, although Hanafiah has maintained his office is "part of the machinery of the federal government and being part of it, we receive direction and instruction from the government".

"My email is a reminder to the DPPs [deputy public prosecutors] concerned that the cases must proceed as scheduled and that there shall be no delay in conducting [them]," he said in a statement, emphasising that the trail judge had final say on all adjournments.

Ramkarpal Singh, a lawyer and MP from the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition that unseated Najib's Barisan Nasional in May's general election, called for Hanafiah's resignation or removal following the leak, saying that the attorney general had to be impartial and the error was "serious and disgraceful".

Ragunath Kesavan, who was previously president of the Malaysian Bar, also criticised the letter.

"It was silly to have issued the circular with reference to a Cabinet decision and using the word 'kleptocracy'," he said.

"Full power and discretion is with the public prosecutor. It is their duty to not only prosecute to the fullest extent of the law but [also] ensure that [the] accused is given full rights as provided under the law and ensure that [the] prosecution is fair and in accordance with the rule of law. There should be no Cabinet direction or interference."

This overlap, said Ragunath, is why the offices of attorney general and public prosecutor should ideally be separated. Currently the attorney general is both adviser to the government and public prosecutor, which presents a conflict of interest according to the legal expert.

The trial of Najib on seven charges linked to SRC International, a company established by 1MDB in 2011, was initially supposed to run from Tuesday through to February 24 and March 4-29.

During his time as finance and prime minister, Najib oversaw the running of 1MDB, which was 42 billion ringgit (S$14 billion) in debt at the time of the scandal. He was charged with corruption soon after losing last year's general election to Mahathir Mohamad's Pakatan Harapan.

As well as Najib, his wife Rosmah Mansor and several other former high-ranking government officials have been charged as part of a wide-ranging corruption investigation launched by Pakatan Harapan. Muhammad Shafee, Najib's lawyer, has also been charged with several counts of money-laundering and tax evasion.

The former prime minister has maintained his innocence throughout, claiming that the charges are politically motivated. His supporters and family echo this stance.

Najib's daughter, Nooryana Najib, on Sunday published a passionate defence of her father on her Instagram account, saying of the 42 charges laid against him "only one has to stick on a technicality and the government would have silenced its strongest critic".

"Every second he spends alone in the accused dock, he will be thinking of his family, friends, supporters and the people that he so deeply cares for. You are his source of strength and determination. It will be your kind thoughts, encouraging words and heartfelt prayers that will help him weather this storm. Please stand by him in what will be the biggest test of his life," she wrote.

Amid the investigations and legal proceedings, Najib, who is still an MP, has stayed politically active - occupying the role of opposition leader and criticising the Pakatan Harapan government's every misstep or faux pas.

He has also been working to rebrand himself as a blue-collar man on the street, instead of a patricianly political blue blood, with a recently launched campaign bearing the tagline malu apa bossku, or "what's there to be ashamed of, boss?"

The campaign, which features merchandise such as hoodies and T-shirts with the campaign slogan emblazoned across the chest and photos of Najib astride a popular make of moped, is steadily picking up steam among the lawmaker's younger fan base as he continues his charm offensive.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.