At the height of their power, Malaysia’s then Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, appeared confident they had ridden out the storm of their alleged roles in a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal.
Domestic probes into the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) development fund Najib created and oversaw as chairman of its advisory board had cleared him of any misconduct, critics had been sacked, rivals imprisoned and the largesse continued to flow.
The gilded pair now face the prospect of spending the rest of their lives behind bars on corruption-related charges. Malaysia’s former first couple have had their world turned upside down since the resounding electoral defeat of Najib’s ruling coalition in May.
Appearing on Thursday morning at a court in Kuala Lumpur, Rosmah, 66, pled not guilty to 17 charges, including money laundering, laid against her by prosecutors. She was arrested on October 3 by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), an anti-graft body investigating how billions of dollars went missing from 1MDB. Rosmah faces a potential 15 years in prison if convicted of the charges.
Najib is similarly facing a total of 32 charges for offenses that include abuse of power, criminal breach of trust, money laundering and corruption. Money laundering probes into 1MDB dealings are ongoing in at least six countries, including the United States, which has seized assets linked to graft proceeds.
Malaysia’s newly elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who had once been Najib’s political mentor, reopened a domestic probe into 1MDB as one of his first acts as premier. Their arrests and trials followed a whirlwind of police raids, court appearances and marathon interrogation sessions.
The former first couple were barred from international travel on Mahathir’s orders after they attempted to board a flight to Jakarta three days after Najib’s ruling coalition was toppled. Given the timing and circumstances, the move was widely interpreted as a quiet bid to flee the country to avoid criminal charges.
Investigators at the Department of Justice (DoJ) believe US$4.5 billion was looted from the fund between 2009 to 2014 in a global web of transactions involving shell companies and other intermediaries. The former premier maintains his innocence and denies all wrongdoing in connection with funds misappropriated from 1MDB.
It is unclear whether the charges leveled today against Rosmah, which relate to offenses such as the use of illegal proceeds and failure to declare income tax, pertain directly to 1MDB.
Her arrest came after three earlier rounds of questioning, including a session last week that stretched on for nearly 13 hours. A judge set her bail at two million ringgit (US$482,500). She left the court today without speaking to reporters.
Rosmah had been widely vilified as a symbol of opulence and suspected corruption by Malaysians. Renowned for her ostentatious displays of wealth and chartered shopping expeditions, her spending habits appeared to many as far outpacing her husband’s government salary.
Often seen in public with diamond jewelry and Hermès Birkin handbags, many suspected her involvement in corruption scandals associated with her husband.
Rosmah had staff in the prime minister’s office and sources allege she often prevailed in her attempts to exercise political influence during her husband’s tenure, lasting from 2009 to 2018.
WSJ journalists Tom Wright and Bradley Hope, authors of the newly released book “Billion Dollar Whale”, published an article in June which described Rosmah as a “political force and central actor” in the 1MDB scandal, linking her to fugitive Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho, regarded by many as the graft scandal’s mastermind.
The authors claim that Rosmah was responsible for helping to orchestrate Low’s involvement with the state fund after she learned of his business connections to Middle East royalty and prominent Persian Gulf families. He allegedly introduced her Hollywood celebrities and created a shell company to mask her extensive luxury purchases.
“The wife had more of a picture than the husband,” according to a source quoted in the report who claimed former premier Najib was “only partly in the loop” and “focused on obtaining funds for political uses rather than personal spending.”
Rosmah’s lawyers have denied the allegations and said the article is an attempt to defame their client.
Azrene Ahmad, the former first lady’s estranged daughter from her first marriage in 1987, shared a post on her social media accounts shortly after elections in May claiming that she had witnessed Najib and Rosmah’s many “trespasses, deals and handshakes” which she alleged were “made for the benefit of power and to fuel their appetite for greed.”
Calling herself the “black sheep of the family,” Azrene claimed knowledge of “numerous offshore accounts opened to launder money out of the country” and “steel safes full of jewels, precious stones and cash amassed.” She alleged that Rosmah had employed shamans and witch doctors to “gain dominion” over peers and family members.
Azrene’s sibling, Riza Aziz, was questioned by MACC graft investigators in July and is known to have a more cordial relationship with the ex-premier. His film production company, Red Granite Pictures, paid US$60 million to the DoJ in a civil forfeiture suit covering rights and interests claims to “The Wolf of Wall Street” and other films in March.
The Hollywood blockbuster was widely suspected to have been financed with 1MDB funds. Though the settlement did not constitute “an admission of wrongdoing or liability on the part of Red Granite,” according to the court filing, Riza’s compliance with the DoJ’s asset seizure demands has been widely interpreted as an admission of guilt.
Police seized around US$275 million worth of cash and luxury goods from properties linked to Najib and Rosmah, which authorities claim to be the single largest haul in Malaysian history. Raids launched in May confiscated 567 handbags, 423 watches and 12,000 pieces of jewelry, including 1,400 necklaces, 2,200 rings, 2,800 pairs of earrings and 14 tiaras.
Rosmah had reportedly accumulated one of the world’s largest collections of pink diamonds. DoJ investigators believe she acquired a 22-carat pink diamond necklace valued at US$27.3 million, though the item was not recovered during the police seizures. The most valuable piece of jewelry seized was a necklace worth around US$1.5 million.
Investigators also said they recovered the equivalent of US$28 million in 26 different currencies. The former Malaysian premier denies that pilfered funds were used to fund the luxury purchases and maintained the confiscated items were “gifts [which] were accumulated over decades.”
Analysts have argued that endemic corruption that many widely associated with Rosmah played a crucial part in eroding support for Najib’s government, a development that set the country on a new political course. Malaysians, to be sure, never imagined they would see the once-dominant first family answering charges in the dock.