Najib makes latest attempt to overturn prison sentence

PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia: Malaysia’s top court on Thursday began hearing former prime minister Najib Razak’s appeal to overturn his prison sentence for corruption in a high-stakes legal scheme that could see him locked up or potentially launch a political comeback.

It comes after the Southeast Asian country’s Federal Court on Tuesday rejected the former prime minister’s appeal for a retrial, clearing the way for hearings, which will run until August 26.

But as the hearing began, lead defense attorney Hisyam Teh Poh Teik surprised the court by telling the five-judge panel that he wanted to be discharged from the case, which put the court on hold.

The hearing resumed after two hours, with the court refusing to release Hisyam and Chief Judge Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat ordering the prosecution to present their case.

Najib, 69, listened intently to the proceedings, his two children seated right behind him.

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The former leader and his ruling party were defeated en bloc in the 2018 election following allegations of involvement in a multi-billion dollar scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

He and his associates have been accused of stealing billions of dollars from the country’s investment vehicle and spending them on everything from high-end real estate to expensive art.

Following a lengthy trial in the High Court, Najib was found guilty of abuse of power, money laundering and criminal breach of trust for the transfer of 42 million ringgit (10.1 million dollars) from the former 1MDB SRC International unit to his personal bank account.

He was sentenced to 12 years in prison in July 2020, although he was not sent to jail pending appeal.

An appeals court last December rejected his appeal, prompting him to mount a final plea before the Federal Court.

Najib had hoped the court would grant a full new trial, but that request was unanimously denied on Tuesday.

Dressed in a dark suit and white mask, Najib arrived in court on Thursday morning and greeted around 70 supporters, who shouted “bossku”, meaning “my boss”, which turned into a rallying cry among its defenders.

“It’s not a fair trial. Najib is the victim of political persecution,” one of the supporters, 65-year-old businessman Mohamad Yusof Khalid, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

“All his appeals have so far been rejected. We pray to Allah that he will be successful in his last appeal,” he said.

But government prosecutor V. Sithambaram presented a different picture in court. He said the funds paid into Najib’s bank account “were used for his personal expenses, such as buying Chanel watches and paying for credit cards.”

Najib “wielded supreme power at the SRC. The appellant actually ran the SRC. And the board sat there and listened,” the prosecutor added.

If the conviction is upheld, Najib will begin serving his prison sentence immediately, the lawyers said.

An acquittal, however, could propel him into contention for his former political post, as he remains popular in Malaysia despite the scandal that has plagued his government.

He remains an elected MP from the United Malayan National Organization (UMNO), the main party in the current government.

Some analysts, however, have said Najib’s return may not be easy as rivals within his own party may try to derail him.

“Many UMNO leaders like to see him privately verifying [into prison] to allow the party another break,” said political scientist Wong Chin Huat of Sunway University, Malaysia.

“With him gone, there’s one less competitor,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior adviser at Malaysia’s Pacific Research Center think tank and columnist for the Manila Times.

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