Malaysia's former prime minister Najib Razak arrives at the High Court in Kuala Lumpur last year for the opening of his most significant 1MDB trial. He was later convicted and sentence to jail. Photo: AFP / Mohd Rasfan

SINGAPORE – Najib Razak’s corruption hearings resumed this week in Malaysia amid growing speculation that Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government could be prepared to facilitate more lenient treatment of the scandal-tainted ex-premier than had been the case under the preceding Mahathir Mohamad administration.

With Muhyiddin’s three-month-old premiership propped by an alliance with the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the long-ruling party Najib led and over which he still wields a degree of influence, observers wonder whether the new leader has the political will to press ahead with top-level prosecutions initiated by Mahathir’s government.

State prosecutors’ recent decision to drop money-laundering charges against Riza Aziz, Najib’s film producer stepson, as part of an asset forfeiture deal has, moreover, raised new questions about judicial independence, a persistent concern under Najib’s tenure.

The plea bargain also has stoked a backlash that continues to play out among top lawyers, with the country’s ex-attorney general emphatically rebutting claims by his Muhyiddin-appointed successor that he had agreed “in principle” to the controversial settlement’s terms.

Riza, who is accused of channelling US$248 million in misappropriated funds from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state investment fund toward the production of the Oscar-nominated film “The Wolf of Wall Street” and other Hollywood movies, agreed to return $107.3 million in overseas assets in a plea deal announced on May 14.

The court’s order did not amount to an acquittal, and it is unclear why authorities allowed Riza to return less than half of the total sum he is accused by prosecutors of laundering. Critics, moreover, noted that most of the assets he agreed to relinquish had already been seized by the US Department of Justice (DoJ) and would have anyway been returned to Malaysia.

Former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s stepson Riza Aziz in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

US and Malaysian authorities allege an estimated $4.5 billion was embezzled from 1MDB between 2009 and 2014, portions of which Najib – who famously used the phrase “cash is king” to suggest that even public support can be bought – is accused of utilizing as a political slush fund to buoy his Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition’s electoral fortunes. Najib denies wrongdoing and has pleaded innocent in court.

Embezzled public funds were allegedly used for his stepson’s purchases of three multi-million dollar homes in New York, Los Angeles and London, and fuelled extravagant shopping trips and luxury purchases made by Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor, who many perceive as having exercised undue political influence during her husband’s nine-year tenure.

Tommy Thomas, a veteran litigator who stepped down as Malaysia’s attorney general in February with the change in government, derided Riza’s conditional discharge as a “sweetheart deal” that he “would have never sanctioned” in a refutation of current Attorney General Idrus Harun’s claim that he had earlier consented to the settlement.   

“I would have lost all credibility in the eyes of the people of Malaysia whom I endeavored to serve as public prosecutor to the best of my ability, honestly and professionally, if I had approved it,” said Thomas in a May 18 statement that accused his successor, as well as the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) in earlier remarks, with peddling “fiction.”

Prior to his resignation, Thomas took the lead in prosecuting top officials, including Najib, allegedly responsible for pilfering 1MDB funds in an elaborate globe-spanning heist. With the political tides now turned, his remarks have raised questions about whether Malaysia’s judiciary will come under political pressure while ruling on the landmark case.

“The judiciary is in no way to be blamed for this, [it] acted on the basis of what was presented to it,” prominent constitutional lawyer Gurdial Singh Nijar told Asia Times.

“The attorney-general/prosecution has complete conduct of the case/matter. If the prosecution says it wishes the court to make the order and both parties agree, the court has no choice but to make the order on the agreed terms,” said the veteran attorney, who believes that Riza’s plea deal should be rescinded on public interest grounds.

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin takes questions from the press, February 29, 2020, Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/Mohd Daud

Following an outcry over the dismissal of charges against Najib’s stepson, Muhyiddin issued a statement denying any involvement in the case. The 73-year-old premier, who was fired as Najib’s deputy in 2016 for speaking out about the 1MDB scandal, has attempted to define his leadership as tough on corruption and a guardian of judicial independence.

“The judiciary has shown thus far that it is more than capable of providing a fair trial. There is no reason to doubt that,” said Surendra Ananth, a constitutional lawyer. “The concern if at all is if the charges against corruption-accused individuals are dropped. But even for that, it’s up to the attorney-general.”

The issue, says Mustafa Izzuddin, a senior international affairs analyst at Solaris Strategies Singapore, is not so much that the Malaysian judiciary is unable to adjudicate unhindered, “but more about a potential political interference in delaying, if not hindering, the cases being brought to the judiciary in the first place.”

“Political interference is even more likely now with UMNO getting stronger day by day, with the support from UMNO pivotal in Muhyiddin staying in power amid the constant political tussle with former premier Mahathir Mohamad,” he said in reference to a factional split now roiling the governing party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), or Bersatu.

“Muhyiddin is too astute a politician to interfere in the trials personally as it would not sit well with the domestic population,” said the analyst.

“But at the behest of UMNO, he is likely to leverage on other levers of government from behind the scenes to curb the aggressive hunt for corruption cases afflicting UMNO members, thereby ultimately slowing down altogether the trials being played out in the courts.”

When Najib’s trial resumed on May 19 for the first time since court hearings nationwide were adjourned in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic, lead prosecutor Gopal Sri Ram said he would be citing the former premier for contempt over remarks he made in a March 4 interview with Reuters held days after Muhyiddin’s inauguration.

Former Malaysian prime ministers Najib Razak (L) and Mahathir Mohamad (R) in file photos. Photo: AFP

Najib, when asked whether he expected the unforeseen fall of Mahathir’s government to impact his legal predicaments, was quoted as saying: “I would expect that the atmosphere would be more conducive towards a fair trial. I’m not alluding to anything, because there’s no conclusion to the trial… But hopefully, you know, I will get a fair trial.”

Sri Ram told the judge that the former premier’s remarks represented “a very serious allegation” that there had been an “atmosphere of an unfair trial” prior to the change of government. Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, the ex-leader’s lawyer, argued that he had only been referring to the removal of Mahathir, who Najib accuses of political persecution.

In a further twist, Sri Ram told the court that Riza was willing to testify against his step-father as a prosecution witness. It is unclear whether his recent plea bargain was sealed on condition that he testify. Shafee, in any case, welcomed the announcement and said Riza’s testimony could even help the former premier’s position in the 1MDB trial.

Clare Rewcastle-Brown, editor of Sarawak Report, the whistleblower website widely recognized for its role in uncovering the byzantine money trail and political machinations behind the 1MDB scandal, believes UMNO’s return to government has emboldened Najib to the degree that he has become seemingly cocksure of his own acquittal.

“He has made no secret of what he is thinking on his Facebook and other platforms. Not only does he appear to think that prospects are favorable for his total exoneration, but he is now bent on revenge,” she said, in reference to legal threats Najib made against her in an April 17 post in which he said he would pursue when his court cases are “settled.”

“He has made clear that he intends to sue me over my coverage and has referred to stories that have long passed the statute of limitations for libel in the United Kingdom and most other countries. However, he presumably intends to sue me in Malaysia,” said Rewcastle-Brown, who similarly faced legal harassment during Najib’s tenure as premier.

In August 2015, Malaysian police notified Interpol that it had charged Rewcastle-Brown, who is British, with disseminating false documents and partaking in “activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy.” The international policing agency, however, rejected a request to issue a red notice – akin to an international arrest warrant – against her.

Charges against Rewcastle-Brown were dropped after the fall of Najib’s government in May 2018, but with Malaysia’s previous reform-oriented coalition having been swept out of power in a February political coup, the Sarawak Report editor says she will not travel to Malaysia.

A signboard for the 1Malaysia Development Berhad state fund in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AFP

Swiss whistleblower Xavier Andre Justo, who helped prompt global investigations into 1MDB by leaking key data on the scandal to Sarawak Report and other media, notably fled Malaysia in March shortly after Muhyiddin’s unelected government came to power.

“The record shows how fragile the independence of the Malaysian judiciary can be when subject to political pressures, particularly at the highest levels relating to people with powerful connections,” Rewcastle-Brown told Asia Times.  

Prosecutors have leveled 42 charges ranging from money laundering to abuse of power against Najib, who is adamant that he committed no crime. His wife Rosmah has similarly claimed innocence to 17 charges of money laundering and tax evasion, while her son Riza had until recently faced five counts of money laundering.

“With the ascension of a new Malaysian government fighting for its survival, it looks like everything is on the table and there are political deals to be made by those with the right leverage and connections,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in response to charges being dropped against Riza.  

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, in remarks to Bloomberg earlier this week, said the settlement involving Najib’s stepson set a “dangerous and disturbing precedent” and showed “[a] lack of understanding and commitment to actual legal reform.” He said Malaysians would not accept the settlement and called for the issue to be reopened.

“The whole arrangement stinks to high heaven and bodes very badly for justice and accountability in the massive 1MDB corruption case and the associated rights abuses committed when then PM Najib Razak desperately tried to cover up his misdeeds and punish his critics,” Robertson told Asia Times. 

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