Malaysia’s former leader Najib Razak was found guilty of corruption on Tuesday in the first trial linked to a multi-billion dollar scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) that stretched to the Gulf states and Hollywood.
The case was widely seen as a test of Malaysia’s resolve to stamp out corruption and could have big political implications for the Southeast Asian nation.
As a Malaysian judge read out a verdict of guilty on all charges, the former prime minister, who had led the country for a decade before losing the 2018 election, sat silently in the dock.
Najib offered no visible reaction to the verdict. Masked against the coronavirus, wearing a brown suit with red and black striped tie, he had recited a brief prayer, flanked by leaders of his political party, before he entered the dock.
The court is expected to deliver a sentence later on Tuesday, after the judge rejected pleas by Najib’s lawyers to delay the sentencing until next week. The corruption charges carry hefty fines and jail terms of up to 15 or 20 years.
Najib, who denied wrongdoing, has pledged to appeal to Malaysia’s Federal Court.
The former premier has suffered a dramatic slide in fortunes since he was first charged in 2018, after he led his National Front ruling coalition to its first election defeat in six decades since independence from Britain.
He had faced a public backlash over accusations of rampant corruption in his administration and his family’s opulent lifestyle of overseas holidays and luxury shopping sprees.
In the weeks after the election loss, authorities seized hundreds of luxury handbags, jewellery and millions of dollars of cash during raids on properties linked to his family.
Najib was later arrested, and a raft of corruption charges linked to 1MDB, which he co-founded in 2009, followed.
Before his arrest, Najib told Reuters there was nothing improper about the seized luxury items or cash, which authorities had valued at up to $275 million.
“I didn’t benefit from 1MDB, because I believe that 1MDB was created to do something good for the country,” he said.
Najib has yet to be sentenced, but unless his conviction is overturned, he could end up in a cell at a prison complex on the outskirts of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, that houses common criminals.
The eldest son of Malaysia’s second Prime Minister Abdul Razak Hussein, Najib was groomed for high office from his political debut, aged 23.
Until recently, he was the youngest person elected to parliament. He was also one of the youngest to be appointed a federal deputy minister, and later the youngest to head his home state of Penang as chief minister.
The smooth upward trajectory of the British-educated son of nobility culminated in 2009 when he succeeded Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who stepped down a year after a bruising election that cost their ruling coalition a two thirds majority in parliament.
Najib struck a reformist tone, pushing for liberal economic policies and repealing colonial-era security laws in a bid to shed the perception of a government unwilling to brook dissent.
But the disenchantment of Malaysia’s ethnic minorities in a 2013 election prompted Najib to roll back his reform pledges in the face of anger over a perceived loss of long held economic privileges by the majority ethnic Malays, who form the power base of his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party.
The majority Muslim Malays form 60 per cent of a population of about 32 million, with the rest mostly made up of ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indians.
Just two years after the 2013 election, the first signs of scandal began to surface at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
Najib acted quickly to try and stop the fallout, but it was too late and voters, livid at the graft accusations, threw out his ruling coalition.
A swift crackdown followed for Najib and his family at the hands of his mentor-turned-foe, Mahathir Mohamad, the veteran politician who led a loose opposition pact to power that year.
Yet Najib remains popular in some quarters. His regular jabs at the opposition and lighthearted updates on Facebook have drawn over 4 million followers, more than any other Malaysian politician.
“Last week my Facebook attracted 20 million engagements,” Najib said in an interview in March. “Normally I get about 9.5 million a week.”