KUALA LUMPUR: Former Malaysian leader Najib Razak was sentenced on Tuesday to 12 years in jail on corruption charges linked to the multi-billion-dollar 1MDB scandal that led to the downfall of his government two years ago.

The ex-prime minister was also fined almost $50 million after being convicted on all seven charges in the first of several trials related to the looting of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad sovereign wealth fund.

The 67-year-old is challenging the verdict and will be allowed to remain free on continued bail until a lengthy appeals process is complete. Billions of dollars were stolen from Malaysia’s main state investment vehicle and spent on everything from high-end real estate to pricey art.

Investment bank Goldman Sachs also became embroiled in the scandal and faces a series of hefty fines in both the United States and Malaysia as a result.

Anger at the looting played a large part in the shock loss of Najib’s long-ruling coalition at elections in 2018, and he was arrested and hit with dozens of charges following his defeat.

The verdict was welcomed as a boost for Malaysia’s rule of law and came despite Najib’s political allies returning to power earlier this year as part of a coalition.

Judge Mohamad Nazlan Mohamad Ghazali at Kuala Lumpur’s High Court found Najib guilty on seven charges regarding the transfer of 42 million ringgit ($9.9 million) from a former 1MDB unit to his bank accounts.

The blue-blood politician, whose father and uncle had both been Malaysian prime ministers, had vehemently denied any wrongdoing and looked calm as the verdict was handed down.

After finding him guilty on a range of charges including abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money-laundering, the judge sentenced Najib to between 10 and 12 years on each. The sentences will run concurrently, however, meaning he will remain behind bars for 12 years.

“I regret the court decision today, but we will appeal to the court of appeal,” Najib told reporters after the verdict, as hundreds of angry supporters outside the building chanted “Long live Najib”. “It is not the end of the world... I believe in my innocence,” he said.

Prosecutor V. Sithambaram had called for a heavy punishment, telling the court Najib was guilty of a “gross betrayal of trust”.

“This case has tarnished the country as a kleptocracy, and the people of Malaysia don’t deserve that,” he said.

The former leader had insisted he was ignorant of the transactions from the 1MDB unit, SRC International.

The defence team portrayed him as a victim, and instead sought to paint financier Low Taek Jho — a key figure in the scandal who has been charged in the US and Malaysia — as the mastermind. Low, whose whereabouts are unknown, maintains his innocence.

Najib’s lawyers said he was tricked by Low into believing the money was a donation from Saudi royalty, but the judge dismissed the notion as “far-fetched”.

Published in Dawn, July 29th, 2020