With appeal court verdict looming, Malaysia’s Najib seeks entry of new 1MDB evidence ‘for justice to be done’jessie tan
Malaysia’s former leader Najib Razak has sought to introduce fresh evidence in one of the criminal cases linking him to the 1MDB financial scandal , days before an appellate court was to rule on whether to uphold a guilty verdict that sentenced him to a 12-year jail term.
The development ahead of the Dec 8 Court of Appeal ruling has raised questions among observers on whether Najib is seeking to delay the judgment amid a resurgence in his once-faded political clout.
The former prime minister’s camp has dismissed this notion, saying instead that he was seeking only to exonerate himself with the new evidence after fighting the initial trial at the High Court with “one hand tied behind his back”.
In a press conference on Thursday (Dec 2), Najib’s lawyer Shafee Abdullah said the application was taking place as the evidence had only surfaced recently, after allegedly being suppressed by authorities since the former prime minister’s legal troubles began in 2018.
At the centre of the application are questions the Najib defence team is raising over the role of Malaysia’s former central bank governor, Zeti Akhtar Aziz, in the various transactions involving the 1MDB financial scandal.
Shafee’s team had earlier circulated to the press a 93-page exhibit — along with a 21-page affidavit by Najib — that contained material including statutory declarations and press statements that alluded to the involvement of Zeti, her husband and two sons.
The submission had sought to suggest that a recent Malaysian government announcement that Singapore had returned about US$16.3 (S$22.3) million linked to the multibillion-dollar losses at the 1MDB state fund buttressed the defence’s view about Zeti’s alleged involvement.
Among other things, the defence now wants the Court of Appeal to allow evidence from the top anti-corruption official Azam Baki.
Zeti, governor of the central bank from 2000 to 2016, has not publicly commented on the matter. The 74-year-old served on the council of eminent persons that elder statesman Mahathir Mohamad set up in 2018 when the Pakatan Harapan alliance he was part of staged a stunning electoral victory to seize power from Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (Umno).
“The decision as you know, has been pending for the past six months … The fact that we discovered this by sheer accident and coincidence is not our fault … we didn’t delay at all,” Shafee said in a press conference.
The lawyer said his hope was that the Court of Appeal would consider the application for fresh evidence before the December 8 ruling. “We have been waiting for six months (for the verdict), what is another two weeks for justice to be done,” Shafee said.
In the nearly hour-long press conference, the lawyer repeated the defence’s main line of argument: that it was the now-fugitive businessman Jho Low who was central to the theft at 1MDB.
Government prosecutors have dismissed that characterisation, saying instead that the cherubic financier was a “mirror image” of Najib.
Asked about Najib’s state of mind ahead of next Wednesday’s verdict, Shafee said his “client was anxious and maybe even worried … just like any other accused person”.
The Court of Appeal — Malaysia’s second highest court — next week will hand down its verdict on whether to uphold the guilty verdict handed down in the first of five trials linking him to the 1MDB scandal. A judgment was reserved after 15 days of hearing that ended in May.
In the High Court trial, Najib was found guilty of seven criminal charges, including one count of abuse of power and three counts each of criminal breach of trust and money laundering involving 42 million ringgit (S$13.5 million) from SRC International — a now-defunct investment vehicle of the troubled 1MDB sovereign wealth fund.
In handing down the verdict last July, High Court Judge Nazlan Ghazali dismissed claims by Najib that he had been misled by various parties including Low that misappropriated funds found in his personal account were political donations from the late Saudi king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud.
“Regardless of [which] segment of the Arab royalty [was involved] and the accused’s confidence in Jho Low, the accused’s failure to confirm the [veracity of the] donation from king Abdullah [made the defence argument] improbable,” Nazlan said in his judgment.
Commentators have questioned Najib’s decision to bring Zeti, who remains highly respected within elite circles, into the picture.
“How does this alleged new piece of evidence help the appellant? He was found guilty of receiving and then spending the money,” Rafique Rashid Ali, a senior lawyer and member of the Bar Council, told This Week in Asia .
Rafique also highlighted that Zeti had been offered to the defence as a witness, but Shafee had turned this down, adding that he believed that Shafee was seeking to conduct a “trial by public opinion”.
Apart from the first trial — dubbed by commentators as the “SRC International” case — the other trials he is facing are to do with losses within the main 1MDB fund and for tampering with the fund’s audit report with its former chief executive.
Despite his legal troubles, Najib’s clout has been growing in recent months after his party, Umno, regained its dominance at the top level of the country’s politics following a series of political manoeuvrings.
The veteran politician was central to Umno’s decisive victory over its rivals in a state election last month and there has been talk that Najib’s camp within the party is eager for a general election — next due in 2023 — to be sooner rather than later.
Observers say part of Najib’s resurgent appeal is to do with his reinvented persona as a champion of the everyman. The former prime minister has amassed a large following on social media and frequently uses the platforms to attack opponents in simple, folksy language.