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Malaysia in transition

Malaysia's Najib begins appeal to overturn 1MDB-related jail term

Lawyer vows to make case ex-PM 'was not aware' of illegal funds

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak arrives at the Court of Appeal in Putrajaya on April 5.   © Reuters

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia's appellate court on Monday began hearing former Prime Minister Najib Razak's application to strike down a prison sentence imposed last year in connection with the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal.

Clad in a brown suit and tie, Najib arrived at the court complex in the administrative capital of Putrajaya for the hearing, with a three-member bench presiding. The court has set aside 12 days between Monday and April 22 to consider the appeal.

Last July, Najib was sentenced to 12 years in jail and order to pay a $50 million fine after he was convicted on seven counts involving criminal breach of trust, money laundering and abuse of power. The former prime minister -- who remains an influential figure in Malaysia's largest political party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) -- was found to have directly received illegal proceeds from SRC International, a subsidiary of the now-defunct state wealth fund 1MDB. He has been free on bail.

Najib, who led the country from 2009 until his historic election defeat to Mahathir Mohamad's coalition in 2018, maintains that the charges were politically motivated and that he is innocent.

For the appeal proceedings, Najib's attorneys have listed 307 grounds for reversing his convictions on the seven charges, which involved the alleged siphoning of 42 million ringgit ($10 million) from SRC. "We are going to argue that he was not aware of the transaction into his account and that [he did not know] the funds originated from SRC International," a lawyer told Nikkei Asia.

In opening remarks reported by Reuters, Najib's side argued that the trial judge's ruling improperly included factors not presented as part of the case, calling this "prejudicial."

The defense team on Monday sought an adjournment for another month, to allow time for gathering relevant documents from the U.S. and Singapore, but the request was rejected, according to reports. 

Regardless of the appeal outcome, Najib still faces dozens of other charges related to allegations of corruption and money laundering worth a total of $4.5 billion from 1MDB. The entity, created in 2009 by converting a small state investment vehicle into a mammoth sovereign fund, was his brainchild.

Najib's convictions, hailed by many as a victory for the rule of law, sent a shock wave through Malaysia's ruling alliance that continues to reverberate.

UMNO had backed Muhyiddin Yassin in his successful bid to oust Mahathir from within the party the men co-founded, the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu). Together, UMNO and Bersatu formed a new government in March 2020 with Muhyiddin as prime minister.

But ties between the parties soured after Najib was found guilty. Some in UMNO worry other prominent leaders currently on trial could face the same fate -- including party President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who faces a corruption case in the Kuala Lumpur High Court.

As things stand, unless Najib is cleared of all charges, he will be ineligible to run in the next federal election -- expected as soon as COVID-19 is under control. If Ahmad Zahid is convicted before the polls, UMNO would have to pick a new prime ministerial candidate.

His deputy, Mohamad Hasan, is seen by the UMNO grassroots as the most likely alternative candidate to lead the party and country.

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