On Tuesday (July 28), Malaysian High Court Judge Mohamad Nazlan Mohamad Ghazali sentenced Najib to 12 years in prison and fined him RM210 million (S$68 million), after finding him guilty on all seven charges involving criminal breach of trust, money-laundering and abuse of power.
This is the first time that a former Malaysian Prime Minister has been convicted and sentenced. Najib, 67, who is free on bail, said he would appeal.
“Justice Nazlan delivered a well-reasoned, comprehensive and complete grounds of judgement which would be difficult to challenge on appeal,” said Mr Lim Chee Wee, a former president of the Malaysian Bar Council.
Najib’s lead counsel, Mr Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, told reporters on July 28 that he is confident his client can be acquitted at the Court of Appeal.
Since Najib is found guilty of all seven charges, it should lessen his chances of acquittal on appeal, said Mr Lim Tean, a lawyer who is the founding Secretary-General of People’s Voice, a Singapore opposition party.
“And if anything, today’s ruling signals that all may not be well for Najib who faces dozens more corruption and money-laundering charges,” said Mr Charles Santiago, a Malaysian Member of Parliament (MP) with the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP).
Najib is due to appear in court on at least another 40 charges related to the international money-laundering scandal involving 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a defunct Malaysian sovereign wealth fund.
The seven charges on which Najib was found guilty involved the transfer of RM42 million from a former 1MDB subsidiary, SRC International, into his bank accounts in 2014 and 2015. Some of the future charges are graver than the seven charges, because the amount of money involved, in billions of US dollars, is much larger.
While Najib was Prime Minister from April 2009 to May 2018, at least US$4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB and much of that was laundered in the US, UK and other countries, the US and Malaysian authorities allege.
“I do not believe he will be acquitted, for a new Malaysia they have to make the point, he is a criminal and belongs into jail,” said Mr Pascal Najadi, the son of Mr Hussain Najadi, a murdered Malaysian banker.
“If Najib walks away scot-free, the world will see Malaysia as a crooked state. That will discourage foreign investment in Malaysia because investors want transparency,” said Mr Pascal Najadi, a banker who lives under local police protection in Geneva, Switzerland.
Mr Pascal Najadi fled Malaysia in March 2014, after his father, the founding chairman of Malaysian bank AmBank, was shot dead in Kuala Lumpur on July 29, 2013. He has publicly complained that the investigation of his father’s murder was unsatisfactory.
The strength of the evidence presented in court makes it difficult to overturn Najib’s conviction, he argued.
For instance, Judge Nazlan said there were “many problems” with Najib’s defence that RM2.6 billion which flowed to his accounts in AmBank were a donation from the late Saudi King Abdullah, not 1MDB money as suspected. But Judge Nazlan said Najib did not check with government officials to verify the authenticity of the purported donation. Najib did not send a “thank you” letter to King Abdullah for the donation, the judge noted.
Under Malaysian practice, the King, called the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, can pardon an offender but not reduce his sentence. The Agong is unlikely to pardon Najib because it would not be acceptable to the Malaysian people, said Mr Lim Tean.
Mr Tony Pua Kiam Wee, a Malaysian MP, tweeted on July 28 that Najib’s sentence was “a just punishment for someone who is unrepentent to the very end, protesting ignorance”.
“For Najib, it’ll be an immediate change from ‘innocent until proven guilty’ to mounting appeals against the guilty verdict. He doesn’t lose his MP seat but he can no longer contest in party or general elections until the verdict’s overturned,” said Mr Pua, a DAP member.
If all of Najib’s appeals fail and even one conviction remains standing, he will be disqualified as MP. The appeal process can take months or even years, said Dr Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
“The tainted image of having been convicted would somewhat dent his political legitimacy,” said Dr Oh.
While Najib has a right to appeal, this verdict demonstrated that corruption has reached the highest levels of power, said the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4 Center), a Malaysian anti-corruption non-government organisation.
Najib’s conviction puts “a permanent stop to swirling rumours that he may make a political comeback,” said Mr Santiago.
Nonetheless, it cannot be ruled out that Najib may play an indirect political role, as indicated by hundreds of his supporters who appeared when the court gave its verdict on July 28.
Toh Han Shih is a Singaporean writer in Hong Kong. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.