Malaysia’s former prime minister Najib Razak today (Wednesday) pleaded not guilty to four charges brought against him for alleged breach of trust and abuse of power.
Najib appeared first before Judge Zainal Abidin Kamarudin in the sessions court, where he was formally charged, and then before Judge Mohamad Sofian Abdul Razak in High Court 3, where the charges were put to him, and he chose to go for trial.
He faces three charges of alleged criminal breach of trust and one of alleged abuse of power.
Najib’s voice was barely audible as he said that he claimed trial. His demeanour throughout the High Court hearing was subdued.
The breach of trust charges have been brought under Section 409 of the Penal Code. They each carry a maximum sentence of twenty years in jail. They also carry the penalty of caning, but, except in cases of rape, men aged over fifty are exempt and Najib is aged 64.
The abuse of power charge comes under Section 23 of the 2009 Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) Act. It also carries a maximum sentence of 20 years and a fine of no less than five times the value of funds siphoned or 10,000 ringgit, whichever is higher.
The charges centre on alleged corruption in relation to SRC International Sdn Bhd, a former subsidiary of the sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
In its investigations into allegations about 1MDB, the MACC has initially focused on the alleged siphoning of funds from SRC International to Najib’s account.
Najib faces allegations that 42 million Malaysian ringgit (about US$10.4 million) was transferred from SRC International to his personal bank account.
Najib’s government created SRC in 2011 to pursue overseas investments in energy resources. It was a subsidiary of 1MDB until it was transferred to the finance ministry in 2012.
Bail was today set at one million ringgit (about US$248,000) in cash, 500,000 to be paid today and 500,000 on Monday, and Najib was ordered to surrender his two passports – an ordinary one and a diplomatic one.
After the first bail payment was made, Najib left the court to the cheers of his supporters who called out Hidup Najib (Long live Najib) and held up #FreeNajib signs. He reasserted that he is innocent.
The newly appointed attorney-general Tommy Thomas, who is leading the 12-strong prosecution team, had asked for bail of four million ringgit.
Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, who is leading Najib’s seven-person defence team, said the four million ringgit bail asked for by the prosecution was “too high by any standards”.
He said that bail was intended to secure the attendance of the accused in court, and was not supposed to be a punishment.
Najib was not a “flight risk”, Shafee said, and had given 42 years of public service. He had no previous convictions, “not even for a traffic offence”.
Shafee said Najib had already commented in an interview that he never had plans to leave Malaysia as this would result in a presumption of guilt. “My client is anxious that his name is cleared,” Shafee said.
He added that, if a cash bail was set, it should be between 500,000 and 800,000 ringgit, with two sureties. He pointed out that Najib’s bank accounts, and those of his wife and children, were frozen.
“Are you trying to have a boxing match with me with my hands tied behind my back,” Shafee said to Thomas.
Shafee asked for the land title of Razak’s house in Langgak Duta to be put up as bail rather than cash. The value of the property exceeded four million ringgit, Shafee said.
Thomas objected to Najib’s property being put up as collateral. If the accused did abscond, he said, the court would have to take steps to sell the property. Why, he asked, should others be left with that responsibility and “we don’t know if it is a free title”, he said.
Thomas asked Shafee how he could play down the 42 million ringgit cited in the charges. The corruption case, he said, had attracted the attention of the whole world “and brought shame to the country”. The request for bail of four million ringgit was “fair and reasonable”, Thomas said.
It is alleged that between December 24 and December 29, 2014, at the AmIslamic Bank Bhd, Najib committed a breach of trust involving a sum of 27 million ringgit. Then prime minister and finance minister, Najib had a mandate to manage four billion ringgit in funds belonging to SRC International.
He is alleged, over the same period, to have committed a second breach of trust involving five million ringgit. It is also alleged that, from February 10 to March 2, 2015, he committed a third breach of trust involving 10 million ringgit.
The total 42 million ringgit was allegedly siphoned from SRC international.
In the fourth charge, it is alleged that, between August 2011 and February 2012, Najib abused his position to receive a 42 million ringgit bribe as an inducement to provide a government guarantee for a four billion ringgit loan from the Kumpulan Wang Persaraan pension fund to SRC International.
Two of Najib’s sons, his daughter Nooryana, a son-in-law and a daughter-in-law were in court for the hearings. His wife, Rosmah Mansor, was in the court complex, but did not attend the hearings.
Judge Mohamad Sofian Abdul Razak imposed a temporary gag order on the media in Malaysia that bans publication of discussion of the merits of the charges against Najib. The defence team will now have to file a formal application for the gag order, which will be considered again at a case management hearing on August 8.
Tommy Thomas said the prosecution team would vigorously oppose the order, which took them by surprise. There is no jury system in Malaysia and Thomas said the request for a gag order insulted the integrity and intelligence of professional judges who, he said, were not going to be influenced by what was published in the media.
Shafee said that he wanted to protect his client from trial by media. Najib was being “virtually hung” already, he said. “That’s not on,” Shafee said. “That’s not cricket.” He said he was talking about putting a gag on media reports, not on “coffee shop talk”.
Thomas responded: “Do not expect the public to cease talking.” He added that the rest of the world’s media would be commenting about the case and would not be bound by the gag order.
The gag order does not apply to media reporting on court proceedings.
The full trial is expected to be in February and March next year.
Tommy Thomas (pictured left) attempted to give a press conference in the lobby of the court complex after the hearing finished, but rowdy Najib supporters caused chaos, demanding that Thomas speak in Bahasa Malaysia, not English. Thomas had to abandon the press conference and hold it in another venue in the complex later.
Allegations of corruption and money laundering linked to 1MDB, which was founded by Najib in 2009, are being investigated in at least six countries.
The new government that came to power in May, and is headed by Najib’s one-time mentor Mahathir Mohamad, has pledged to investigate all allegations of corruption and bring an end to the kleptocracy that marked the rule of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.
The opposition routed BN in Malaysia’s 14th general election. It was the first time since the country gained its independence from Britain in 1957 that the ruling coalition lost an election.
In civil lawsuits filed by the United States Department of Justice, it is alleged that, between 2009 and 2015, more than $4.5 billion in the 1MDB fund was misappropriated by high-level officials of the fund and their associates.
Najib faces allegations that he channelled more than 2.6 billion ringgit (about US$642 million) from 1MDB into his personal bank accounts. He denies any financial wrongdoing in relation to 1MDB.
On June 27, the director of the federal commercial crime investigation department, Amar Singh, said the total value of items seized in recent raids on premises linked to Najib was estimated at between 900 million and 1.1 billion ringgit.
One of the people who came to the court complex to watch today’s proceedings was graphic designer, street artist,, and documentary film maker Fahmi Reza, who has faced legal action for his depictions of Najib.
He tweeted: “I’m at KL Court today as a citizen who has been silenced, persecuted & sentenced to jail for speaking up against @NajibRazak. I was charged & will resume trial at this very same court this month. I’m here to hear the corruption charges … finally being brought against him.”
In a pre-recorded video message released on Twitter and Facebook after his arrest yesterday, Najib said that, “like any normal person”, he was not perfect. “However,” he said, “believe me, the accusations against me are not entirely true.”
Speaking against a background of melancholy music, he said he wanted to apologise to Malaysians. “Malaysians deserve the best leadership. I have done my best, but I am aware that it is not enough as there were many weaknesses.”
He said that after the police raids on his home, many news reports and pictures circulated that were “false rumours, spin, and slander”.
Lawyers for Liberty said in a statement that Judge Mohamad Sofian Abdul Razak had no jurisdiction to issue a gag order against the media and the order was unconstitutional.
“We are surprised and disappointed that the judge allowed the request for a gag order asked for by Najib’s counsel,” the lawyers said.
“He can issue any order that binds the parties in the case or in some cases all those present in court. But he cannot issue an order binding the world at large. Judges do not have such powers.”
To issue an “interim” gag order of this nature, without having heard the full merits of the application for it made the order all the more untenable, Lawyers for Liberty said. “No interim order should be issued in a case like this.”
The lawyers say the gag order is in direct breach of Article 10 of the federal constitution, which guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression, which includes the freedom of the press.
“The gag order is a drastic curtailment of press freedom, and hence unconstitutional.”
The terms of the order were also vague, ambiguous, and uncertain, the lawyers added. “What does ‘merits of the case’ encompass? What can or cannot be reported? Courts must not issue orders that lack clarity; and such orders cannot be enforced.”
Most importantly, the lawyers said, there was no need for a gag order because there was no jury in criminal trials in Malaysia.
“The case is being heard by a single judge, who is trained and experienced in considering only the evidence presented in court, and to exclude all extraneous matters. Competent judges are not supposed to be affected by any number of media reports on the case. Hence, what is the need for a gag order?
“This case against Najib is of the greatest public interest, and public discussion of the case must not be prohibited and silenced.”
Lawyers for Liberty say the gag order will also lead to “absurd results” as it will not bind the media abroad, who will continue to discuss and debate the case. “Najib’s case is of global interest.”
The foreign news reports would thus be instantaneously available to Malaysians via the Internet and social media, and this would make a mockery of the gag order, the lawyers said.
“It is a basic principle that courts must not issue orders that will lead to absurd consequences or which simply cannot be enforced.
“The attorney-general is strongly objecting to the gag order; hence, it is hoped that this legally dubious gag order is set aside as soon as can be.”
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