Malaysia to begin delayed 1MDB-linked graft trial of former PM Najib next week

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak arrives at the High Court in Putrajaya, Malaysia, on March 21, 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS, AFP) - The corruption trial of former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak on charges linked to a multi-billion-dollar scandal at state fund 1MDB will start next week after a delay of nearly two months, his lawyer said on Thursday (March 28).

The postponement was seen as a blow for the government of Tun Mahathir Mohamad, which reopened investigations into the alleged theft of US$4.5 billion (S$6.1 billion) from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) after winning elections last May and vowed swift justice.

Originally set to begin on Feb 12, Najib's trial was postponed because of appeals over procedural matters raised in pre-trial hearings.

But a judge reportedly ruled that the trial - related to just a small amount of the total sum allegedly looted - should now proceed, and a prosecutor confirmed it would start on Wednesday.

Mr V. Sithambaram, a criminal lawyer on the prosecution team, told AFP: "Prosecutors are ready and we will call the witnesses on Wednesday to provide the evidence."

Najib has pleaded not guilty to seven charges of criminal breach of trust, money laundering and abuse of power over a suspected transfer of RM42 million (S$14 million) into his bank account from SRC International, a former 1MDB unit.

The trial is the first of several criminal proceedings Najib is expected to face over the scandal, and the sum involved is a fraction of the US$1 billion investigators allege made its way to his bank accounts.

He faces years in prison if convicted on a total of 42 criminal charges, most of them linked to 1MDB.

Ms Cynthia Gabriel, head of the non-profit group The Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism, welcomed the news but said that Malaysians had been "kept waiting for too long".

"Malaysians have not forgotten Najib's crimes of theft amounting to billions," she told AFP.

At least six countries, including the United States, Switzerland and Singapore, have launched money laundering and graft investigations into 1MDB, set up by Najib in 2009.

US prosecutors say money stolen from the fund went into buying a private jet, luxury real estate, artwork by Picasso and Monet, as well as jewellery for Najib's wife Rosmah Mansor, who has also been charged.

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