KUALA LUMPUR • Malaysia's toppled leader Najib Razak will go on trial this week over an extraordinary financial scandal that contributed to the downfall of his long-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition and reverberated around the world.
The former prime minister and some of his associates are accused of stealing US$4.5 billion (S$6.1 billion) from Malaysian sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) in a mind-boggling fraud that stretched from Switzerland to the Seychelles.
The money was purportedly used to fund a global shopping spree - a US$250 million super-yacht, high-end real estate, and Monet and Van Gogh artworks were among the items allegedly bought with cash plundered from public coffers.
The scandal ensnared celebrities, with the fraud's suspected mastermind seen partying with Leonardo DiCaprio and Paris Hilton, while the new Malaysian government has accused Wall Street titan Goldman Sachs of stealing billions during its work with 1MDB.
Public revulsion at the graft allegations played a large part in the election defeat of Najib - who set up the fund - and a coalition that had ruled Malaysia uninterrupted since independence from Britain in 1957.
Since his shock election loss in May, Najib has been arrested and hit with 42 charges linked to the scandal. He has vehemently denied any wrongdoing.
Far from keeping quiet, the 65-year-old former leader has mounted a publicity blitz, seeking to present himself as a man of the people and constantly hurling jibes at the new government.
This week's trial, starting tomorrow, centres on allegations that RM42 million (S$14 million) was transferred from SRC International, a former 1MDB unit, into Najib's personal bank accounts.
The case involves three counts of money laundering, three of criminal breach of trust and one of abuse of power. Najib has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
START OF THE FIRST TRIAL
It's an important moment, albeit a very delayed one. It is very critical for the new government to address and resolve past scandals.
MS CYNTHIA GABRIEL, head of the non-profit The Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism, and a member of a government committee set up to investigate the 1MDB scandal, about the start of the first trial.
It is just one of several trials he is expected to face over the 1MDB scandal and involves a fraction of the total purportedly stolen from the fund, and the US$681 million that allegedly ended up in his personal accounts.
But the start of the first trial is nevertheless a key moment and may relieve pressure on the new government, following criticism that it has been slow to act over 1MDB.
"It's an important moment, albeit a very delayed one," said Ms Cynthia Gabriel, who was a member of a government committee set up to investigate the scandal.
"It is very critical for the new government to address and resolve past scandals," added Ms Gabriel, head of the non-profit The Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism.
Najib and his defence team have portrayed the cases against him as revenge by the new government led by 93-year-old Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, the former leader's mentor-turned-nemesis.
Najib's chief lawyer, Mr Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, labelled the upcoming trial "political".
He told Agence France-Presse: "If you give me a straight judge, a straight system of justice and the witnesses are left to themselves without being coached, I'll win this case."
Trial dates have been set until the end of next month and prosecutors are expected to call dozens of witnesses.
In recent weeks, Najib has transformed into an unlikely social media phenomenon, gaining a large number of followers online by attacking the new government's policies and posting pictures of visits to homes where he talked to people about economic problems.
In the most bizarre episode, he posted a video of himself, accompanied by backing singers, crooning a Malay rendition of Kiss And Say Goodbye, a 1970s R&B hit by American group The Manhattans, in which he accused the new government of having an "agenda of revenge and slander".
It is a remarkable turnaround for a man often seen as out of touch with ordinary Malaysians during his nine years as prime minister.
Dr Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia expert at John Cabot University, said "the new image... is fabricated and not connected to his term in office".
She added: "I believe the trials will cause serious damage to Najib's standing."