Former Malaysia PM Najib pleads not guilty at start of 1MDB-linked corruption trial

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Former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak arriving at the Kuala Lumpur High Court on April 3, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's former prime minister Najib Razak pleaded not guilty on Wednesday (April 3) to seven charges at the start of his much-anticipated trial linked to the alleged plundering of state fund 1MDB in a financial scandal that shocked the world.

Dressed in a dark blue blazer, white shirt and purple tie, the 65-year-old made his plea from the dock at the Malaysia High Court where he faces three counts of criminal breach of trust, one charge of abuse of power, and three counts of money laundering involving RM42 million (S$14 million) from SRC International, a former unit of 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

The sum is a fraction of the US$1 billion investigators allege made its way into his personal bank accounts. Najib has consistently denied wrongdoing and says the charges against him are politically motivated.

In his opening speech Attorney-General Tommy Thomas outlined the positions held by Najib in public office and at 1MDB and SRC International.

"The accused during his entire period in office as Prime Minister, at which time, these offences were committed, simultaneously held the office of Minister of Finance, thereby combining maximum political power and control of the nation's purse," Mr Thomas said.

"Not satisfied with the holding of the twin positions of Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, the accused was also appointed the chairman of the board of advisors of 1Malaysia Development Berhad and advisor emeritus in its fully owned subsidiary SRC International," he said.

"A common feature of both companies was that the true power in directing and managing their affairs did not lie with the board of directors, as is required by law and is the universal practice...but in the person of accused."

Mr Thomas added that evidence will show that in December 2014, Najib's credit card was charged US$130,625 for expenses made at the luxury Chanel designer boutique in Hawaii, and personal cheques were issued for renovations at his residences in KL and in his constituency in Pekan, Pahang. Cheques were also issued to component parties of the former ruling coalition Barisan Nasional, which is led by Najib's party Umno.

"The burden is now on the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused, Mohd Najib Abdul Razak is guilty of the criminal charges preferred against him at this trial," said Mr Thomas.

The trial's first witness Muhamad Akmaludin Abdullah, 35, the assistant registrar of the Companies Commission of Malaysia took the stand to establish the registration of SRC International and its directors.

The hearing resumes on April 15.

The ex-premier had looked relaxed when he arrived at the Kuala Lumpur Court Complex at about 2pm, stopping to greet a group of his supporters before entering the courthouse with his lawyer Muhammad Shafee Abdullah.

He offered prayers before entering the courthouse.

He was not accompanied by his wife Rosmah Mansor, who has also been charged with money laundering and tax evasion. His son Norashman Najib arrived at the courthouse shortly before 2pm.

Some 40 reporters and cameramen began queuing to get passes to the hearing at around noon at the Court Complex, while about a dozen Najib supporters had gathered outside the court building.

Mr Baha Taha, a Najib supporter and chair of Geram secretariat, a coalition of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), said: "Najib is our true leader and the real PM of Malaysia. He developed the country, especially the rural areas. He took care of the people. We would be really upset and frustrated (if he is jailed.) The allegations against him are not true."

The trial was originally scheduled to begin in February, but appeals filed by Najib's defence team over procedural matters postponed the case a few times.

Defence lawyer Shafee Abdullah even managed to get the appeal hearing pushed back after he pleaded that his pet dog had injured his arm.

Ms Cynthia Gabriel, head of non-profit group The Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism, told AFP that Malaysians have been waiting "too long" for the trial to begin.

"The multiple delays are so obvious and deliberate, it's a way of pushing the trials further," she said. "It's apparent that the former ousted PM isn't quite ready to sit in the dock and face trial, be cross-examined, and get embarrassed."

Mr Fahmi Reza, a graphic artist who was slapped with a jail term and fined for depicting Najib in a caricature as a sinister clown, said it was the ex-premier's turn to "face justice".

"Today, it is your turn to be dragged here to face justice for the crime of corruption and abuse of power during your reign," he said in a tweet.

Najib has also been charged with dozens of other counts of money laundering and abuse of power in connection with RM2.6 billion, believed to be from 1MDB, that went into his personal account.

The SRC trial is the first of four trials faced by Najib, who faces a total of 42 charges of corruption and money laundering.

1MDB is now being wound up after incurring a crippling debt of up to RM51 billion, after an alleged US$4.5 billion (S$6.1 billion) was siphoned from its accounts in a global heist spanning countries from Singapore, Switzerland, to the United States.

The trial begins nearly a year after disgruntled Malaysians voted Najib out of office in a general election and brought his 93-year-old nemesis, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, back to power.

Recouping the lost funds and bringing those responsible to justice were at the top of Dr Mahathir's list of promises when he assumed office last May.

Malaysian prosecutors have since slapped dozens of charges on Najib's wife Rosmah, former 1MDB officers, fugitive Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho, and units of US investment bank Goldman Sachs.

But nearly a year later, only Najib has been taken to trial. Low, who also denies wrongdoing, remains on the run and his whereabouts are unknown.

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