KUALA LUMPUR— Having played golf with U.S. presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama, former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak will now count convicted murderers and drug traffickers as neighbors.
The Federal Court ordered Najib to begin a 12-year prison sentence on Tuesday after upholding a conviction on charges related to a multi-billion dollar graft scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
This was his final appeal and the former premier, dressed impeccably in a dark suit and grey tie, was taken straight to jail from the courthouse.
It marked a stunning turn of events for a leader who held tightly on to power at the peak of accusations over 1MDB when he suppressed local probes, fired investigators and clamped down on critics even as other countries opened investigations into the wide-ranging scandal.
Malaysians, outraged over widespread corruption and the opulence displayed by his family, voted him out in 2018.
Najib tried to leave the country soon afterwards, but he was stopped, arrested briefly and his properties raided in scenes that Malaysians did not expect to see involving the son of the nation’s well-respected second prime minister, Abdul Razak Hussein.
Since then, the former premier has spent the better part of his time in court, defending himself against a total of 42 charges. He has maintained his innocence all along and said he was misled by 1MDB officials.
A day before the final verdict, Najib said in a Facebook post that he was overwhelmed and felt betrayed and alone.
“There are times when we feel overwhelmed by tests and trials. With slander and persecution, with sincerity rewarded with betrayal. Sometimes we feel we are alone,” he said.
‘I was desperate’
The dismissal of his final appeal on Tuesday involved a 2020 conviction by a lower court for criminal breach of trust, abuse of power and money laundering for illegally receiving about $10 million from a former unit of 1MDB.
Prosecutors have said some $4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB – co-founded by Najib as premier in 2009 – and over $1 billion went to Najib in what the U.S. Department of Justice has described as its biggest kleptocracy investigation.
Najib in recent weeks tried to delay the court from delivering its final verdict by changing lawyers just before the start of the appeal.
But his strategies backfired with the court declining to provide more time for his lawyers to prepare.
“I am not ashamed to say, I was desperate, as would (be) any litigant in my predicament,” Najib said in a statement last week, explaining his move to change lawyers.
Najib could now apply for a review of the Federal Court decision, though such applications are rarely successful.
He can also seek a royal pardon. If successful, he could be released without serving the full 12-year term.
The conviction means Najib will lose his parliamentary seat and cannot contest elections. He also faces several other 1MDB trials.
Luxury watches and handbags
Najib was groomed for high office from his political debut, aged 23.
Until recently, he was the youngest person elected to parliament. The British-educated son of nobility was elected as premier in 2009.
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.
Majority Muslim Malays form 60% of a population of about 32 million, with the rest mostly made up of ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indians.
In 2015, the first signs of scandal began to surface at 1MDB, prompting Najib to go after critics decisively.
It took a historic election victory by the opposition in 2018 for Malaysia to reopen 1MDB investigations that eventually led to dozens of charges against Najib.
In the weeks after the loss, authorities seized hundreds of luxury handbags, jewellery, watches and millions of dollars in cash during raids on properties linked to his family.
Najib remains popular in some quarters, including his UMNO party, which came back to power last year amid political turmoil.
His regular jabs at the opposition and lighthearted updates on Facebook have drawn more than 4 million followers, making him Malaysia’s most popular politician on social media.
—Reporting by A. Ananthalakshmi and Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Nick Macfie