By Rozanna Latiff
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) -Malaysia’s top court ordered former prime minister Najib Razak to begin a 12-year prison sentence on Tuesday after upholding a guilty conviction on charges related to a multi-billion dollar graft scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
The Federal Court ruling caps the stunning downfall of Najib, who until four years ago governed Malaysia with an iron grip and suppressed local investigations of the 1MDB scandal that has implicated financial institutions and high-ranking officials worldwide.
Investigators have said some $4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB – co-founded by Najib during his first year as prime minister in 2009 – and that over $1 billion went to accounts linked to Najib.
Najib, wearing a dark suit and tie, sat in the dock as the verdict was read out. His wife, Rosmah Mansor, who is also facing corruption charges, and three children were seated behind him.
Security officials then gathered around the bespectacled former premier and he was later seen leaving court in a black car with police escort.
A court official and sources close to Najib said he was taken to Kajang Prison, about 40 km away from capital Kuala Lumpur.
“This is unprecedented. Najib will be remembered for his many firsts, the first prime minister to lose a general election, the first to be convicted,” said Adib Zalkapli, Director at political risk consultancy BowerGroupAsia.
The British-educated son of Malay nobility held the premiership from 2009 to 2018, when public anger over the graft scandal brought election defeat, and dozens of corruption charges were lodged in following months.
Najib, 69, was found guilty by a lower court in July 2020 of criminal breach of trust, abuse of power and money laundering for illegally receiving about $10 million from SRC International, a former unit of 1MDB. He had been out on bail pending appeals.
The former premier, who had pleaded not guilty, was sentenced to 12 years’ jail and a 210 million ringgit ($46.84 million) fine.
The wide-ranging 1MDB scandal prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to open what became its biggest kleptocracy investigation.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said the verdict proved the power of the people.
“The people made the decision in 2018 to ensure an independent judiciary and that the country is clean of bribery. That decision allowed proceedings to be brought professionally,” he said.
Various recipients of the siphoned 1MDB funds, including a fugitive financier named Jho Low, used the money to buy luxury assets and real estate, a Picasso painting, a private jet, a superyacht, hotels, jewellery, and to finance the 2013 Hollywood film “The Wolf of Wall Street”, U.S. lawsuits have said.
Knocking back Najib’s final appeal, the court also denied his request for a stay of sentence.
“The defence is so inherently inconsistent and incredible that it has not raised reasonable doubt on the case… We also find that the sentence imposed is not manifestly excessive,” Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat said.
The panel of judges had unanimously dismissed Najib’s appeals, she said.
The court had earlier rejected a last gasp effort by Najib to forestall the final verdict by requesting the removal of the chief justice from the panel.
Addressing the court moments before the final verdict was delivered, Najib said he was the victim of injustice.
“It’s the worst feeling to have to realise that the might of the judiciary is pinned against me in the most unfair manner,” Najib told the court.
Najib, who faces several more trials over the allegations, has consistently denied wrongdoing.
He could apply for a review of the Federal Court decision, though such applications are rarely successful. He can also seek a pardon from the king. If successful, he could be released without serving the full 12-year term.
But the conviction means Najib will lose his parliamentary seat and cannot contest elections.
While Najib still has supporters among his base, many ordinary Malaysians welcomed the court decision.
“He did a lot of things wrong for this country when he’s supposed to be responsible for our nation. He’s supposed to bring in money but instead he robbed money,” said tennis coach Farhan Raj, adding he was “very very happy” with the judgement.
(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff, Zahra Matarani, Hasnoor Hussain, Ebrahim Harris and Fadza Ishak; Writing by A. Ananthalakshmi; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Nick Macfie)