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Malaysia’s Najib starts final bid to overturn jail sentence

The Federal Court on Tuesday dismissed the former prime minister's plea for a retrial, clearing the way for the hearings

Malaysia’s top court on Thursday began hearing ex-leader Najib Razak’s appeal to overturn his jail sentence for corruption in a high-stakes legal gambit that could see him locked up or potentially launching a political comeback.

The Federal Court on Tuesday dismissed the former prime minister’s plea for a retrial, clearing the way for the hearings, which will be held until August 26.

But as the hearing started, lead defense lawyer Hisyam Teh Poh Teik surprised the court by telling the panel of five judges that he wanted to be discharged from the case, sending the tribunal into a recess.

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

Najib, 69, listened attentively to the proceedings, his two children seated directly behind him.

The former leader and his ruling party were roundly defeated in 2018 elections following allegations of their involvement in a multibillion-dollar scandal at state fund 1MDB.

He and his associates were accused of stealing billions of dollars from the country’s investment vehicle and spending it on everything from high-end real estate to pricey art.

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

He was sentenced to 12 years in jail in July 2020, though he has not been sent to prison while the appeals process plays out.

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

Najib had been hoping the court would grant a full retrial but that request was unanimously rejected on Tuesday.

Former Prime Minister Najib Razak is pictured arriveing at Kuala Lumpur High Court Complex on Aug. 28, 2019. (shutterstock.com photo)

No easy comeback

Dressed in a dark suit and white mask, Najib arrived in court earlier Thursday and waved to about 70 supporters, who shouted “bossku”, meaning “my boss”, which has turned into a rallying cry among his defenders.

“This is not a fair trial. Najib is a victim of political persecution,” one of the supporters, 65-year-old businessman Mohamad Yusof Khalid, told AFP.

“All his appeals have so far been rejected. We pray to Allah for his success in his final appeal.”

But government prosecutor V. Sithambaram laid out a different picture to the court.

He said the funds that went into Najib’s bank account “were used for his personal expenses like buying Chanel watches and to pay credit cards”.

Najib “wielded supreme power in SRC. The appellant was actually running SRC. And the board sat there and listened,” the prosecutor said.

If the conviction is upheld, Najib will begin serving his jail sentence immediately, 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 plagued his administration.

He remains an elected member of parliament with the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the leading party in the current government.

Some analysts, however, said it may not be an easy comeback for Najib as rivals within his own party may try to derail him.

“Many UMNO leaders privately like to see him checking (into prison) to allow the party a fresh break,” said political scientist Wong Chin Huat of Sunway University, Malaysia.

“With him gone there is one fewer competitor,” added Oh Ei Sun, principal adviser for the think-tank Pacific Research Center of Malaysia.

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