KUALA LUMPUR - Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has been ordered by the Malaysian High Court to enter his defence over 47 counts of money laundering, bribery and criminal breach of trust involving a foundation he had set up.
High Court Judge Collin Lawrence Sequerah ruled on Monday (Jan 24) that the prosecution had established a prima facie case against Zahid over misappropriation of funds totalling RM124.31 million (S$40 million) from Yayasan Akalbudi, a foundation meant to eradicate poverty.
Zahid, 69, is facing 27 money-laundering charges, eight for bribery and 12 for criminal breach of trust related to the funds in a trial that began in November 2019 and has involved 99 prosecution witnesses so far.
Each criminal breach of trust charge carries a maximum of 20 years' imprisonment, similar to that for bribery. The money-laundering charges carry a maximum sentence of 15 years' imprisonment.
Zahid on Monday opted to provide a sworn statement from the witness stand to begin the defence stage of his trial, which is due to commence on April 26 and end on Nov 10.
The former home minister and deputy prime minister, who is MP for Bagan Datuk in Perak, is also involved in a separate trial where he faces more than 40 counts of corruption in connection with the foreign visa system.
Zahid is one of several high-profile Umno leaders who are facing criminal charges brought during Pakatan Harapan’s short-lived 22-month rule between 2018 and 2020.
Former premier Najib Razak, an ally of Zahid, is facing five trials, mostly related to the scandal around the state-backed sovereign fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). He has already been convicted in one case.
In August 2020, Najib was found guilty of seven charges of abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering over the misappropriation of RM42 million from SRC International, a former subsidiary of 1MDB. He was sentenced to 12 years in jail and fined RM210 million. He remains free on bail pending appeal.
The Court of Appeal upheld the conviction and sentencing in December last year. Najib's last recourse is the Federal Court, Malaysia’s apex court, and its decision will likely affect his chances to contest the country's next general election. He is now a Member of Parliament for Pekan, in Pahang.
Zahid was ordered to enter his defence just a day after his party pushed for dissolution of the Johor state legislative assembly, triggering a snap election in the state.
The Umno president is one of several senior party leaders pushing to break ties with Perikatan Nasional (PN), which is led by former premier Muhyiddin Yassin. Umno and PN are partners in the current federal administration. Johor is Tan Sri Muhyiddin's home state.
Zahid and Najib are both proponents for Umno - and by extension the Barisan Nasional coalition it leads - to go it alone in the next general election, which is widely expected this year.
During his short tenure as prime minister between March 2020 and August last year, Mr Muhyiddin pledged not to interfere in the court cases involving his governing partners.
Towards the end of his tenure, Mr Muhyiddin, facing the prospect of losing office after key Umno leaders, including Najib and Zahid, withdrew their support for him, claimed that there was pressure on him to intervene in several high-profile court cases.
Mr Wan Saiful Wan Jan, the information chief of Mr Muhyiddin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), which is part of PN, later claimed that Najib had requested Mr Muhyiddin to interfere in one of his trials.
Mr Muhyiddin's successor, Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who is from Umno, has also come under the spotlight for his handling of the court cases involving his senior party colleagues.