Malaysian ex-PM Najib's 12-year jail sentence upheld in 1MDB-linked case, says appeal court

Former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak is seen arriving at court during his trial.
PHOTO: Reuters

Malaysia’s second highest court has upheld a 12-year jail sentence previously handed to former prime minister Najib Razak in the first of several criminal cases linking him to the 1MDB financial scandal.

The three-judge Court of Appeal ruled that the High Court’s decision to convict Najib of all seven counts in the trial last July was correct, and upheld the 12-year jail term and 210 million ringgit (S$68 million) fine he was handed.

Najib’s activities linked to SRC International – a now-defunct subsidiary of the 1MDB state fund – were not in the “national interest” as claimed by the former prime minister, but represented a “national embarrassment”, the judges said.

The case involves losses suffered at SRC International, for which Najib faced three counts of criminal breach of trust, three counts of money laundering, and one count of abuse of power.

Najib, who appeared in the hearing via video link, looked sombre and took notes as judges read a summary of their 200-page verdict.

The 68-year-old politician is likely to appeal the verdict, which will send the case to the country’s highest judicial body, the Federal Court. By past precedent, it will take months – possibly more than a year – before the case is heard by the top court.

In the meantime, it is likely that Najib will be granted bail and continue his activities within his United Malays National Organisation (Umno), where his once waning clout has seen a sharp resurgence in recent months.

Najib, who has remained an MP after his election defeat in 2018 and subsequent arrest, has not ruled out seeking re-election.

He previously argued that whether he would be able to do so was “subject to interpretation”.

The Malaysian constitution bars citizens from running in elections if they are jailed for more than one year and fined more than 2,000 ringgit.

Umno is said to be eyeing elections some time next year – well before a 2023 deadline for the next polls – amid a softening of the ground for the party. The country’s biggest political party by membership, Umno’s influence dipped following its 2018 defeat under Najib’s leadership but it has since bounced back with the ex-leader playing a key role in recent minor electoral victories.

Some in his camp have suggested the veteran politician could reassume the prime ministership he held from 2009 to 2018.

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In addition to Wednesday’s Court of Appeal decision, Najib faces criminal trials linked to losses from the main 1MDB fund and for allegedly tampering with an audit report.

Two further trials are on hold while these cases are pending.

Investigators say some US$4.5 billion was looted in total from 1 Malaysia Development Berhad, a sovereign wealth fund Najib founded in 2009, soon after he took office as prime minister.

Apart from Najib, two men who are currently fugitives – businessman Jho Low and corporate executive Ariff Kamil Nik Faisal – are viewed by prosecutors as central players in the elaborate plunder.

The theft involves criminal activity in multiple jurisdictions including the United States, Switzerland and Singapore.

Najib, the eldest son of Malaysia’s revered second prime minister Abdul Razak Hussein, is the country’s first leader to face criminal charges.

He has long maintained that the theft was the work of Low. As for funds found in his personal accounts, Najib has claimed they were political “donations from a member of the Saudi royal family”.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.