KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's former deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was on Friday acquitted of 40 bribery charges linked to a visa scheme.
In discharging the case, Shah Alam High Court judge Mohd Yazid Mustafa said the prosecution had failed to prove its case against Zahid, who faced 33 charges of receiving bribes amounting to RM43.39 million (S$13.5 million) from foreign visa operator Ultra Kirana (UKSB).
This was allegedly in return for extending the company's contract to operate a one-stop service centre in China and the Home Ministry's foreign visa system.
The politician said on Friday that he was extremely grateful for the outcome, adding that he had never doubted the judiciary from "day one".
"I was vilified and embarrassed, but today I have been vindicated. The truth has prevailed," he told reporters outside the courtroom.
Zahid, 69, was also acquitted of seven charges of receiving $1.15 million, RM3 million, €15,000 (S$20,800) and US$15,000 (S$21,400) in bribes from UKSB when he was home minister from 2013 to 2018.
Eighteen prosecution witnesses - including senior officers from the Home Ministry and UKSB directors - took the stand during the trial, which began on May 24, 2021.
The prosecution told the court that the witnesses had voluntarily come forward to testify that Zahid had received the money in question.
Zahid's defence lawyers, however, argued that he was a victim of political prosecution, and cast doubts on the testimonies given by some witnesses.
In his ruling, Judge Mohd Yazid said the prosecution had failed to make out a prima facie case on all the charges, as it did not prove "the most important element in all the charges levelled against the accused, that is, the receipt of corrupt monies".
Attorney-General Idrus Harun said the prosecution will study the judgment before deciding on whether to appeal.
Sabah opposition leader Shafie Apdal said the court's decision should be respected, dismissing suggestions of political interference in the case.
Zahid's discharge in the UKSB case could strengthen his position as president of Malaysia's largest party Umno and spur his faction's push for the next general election to be called in 2022.
Responding to news of Zahid's acquittal, Umno vice-president Khaled Nordin said that the party would work harder to face the coming general election, local news portal Free Malaysia Today reported.
However, Zahid's legal troubles are not over. He still faces another 47 criminal charges in an ongoing trial scheduled to end in November.
These comprise 12 charges of criminal breach of trust in relation to more than RM31 million in funds of charitable foundation Yayasan Akalbudi, 27 counts of money laundering, and eight counts of bribery involving RM21.25 million.
Each charge carries a sentence of up to 20 years in jail, caning and a fine.
Separately on Friday, another Umno leader, Datuk Seri Abdul Azeez Abdul Rahim, was granted a discharge not amounting to an acquittal for bribery and money laundering charges relating to road projects in the northern states of Perak and Kedah.
The 55-year-old former chairman of Muslim pilgrims' fund Tabung Haji had faced three charges of accepting bribes amounting to RM5.2 million, and six charges of laundering RM972,414.60.