Trick or Treat: Najib and His Merry Band Could Go Free

Former Malaysian PM and allies may never see the inside of a jail cell

With courts having granted passports to at least four of Malaysia’s most notorious lawbreakers, there is a growing sense that a whole bunch of crooks will escape prison either on some technicality or by royal pardon despite their alleged participation in the biggest financial scandal in Malaysian history and a long series of lesser but equally spectacular peccadilloes.

They are convicted former Prime Minister Najib Razak, his wife Rosmah Mansor, United Malays National Organization President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and the latest, UMNO lawyer Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, who was forced to surrender his passport on charges of money laundering involving RM9.5 million received from Najib himself is free on appeal after having been sentenced to 12 years in prison for corruption and money laundering and who appeared to be trying to flee the country with his wife in a private jet for Indonesia immediately after UMNO was defeated and he lost his position in the 2018 general election. Apparently, despite that, neither is considered a flight risk by Malaysian prosecutors.

The fact that all four have had their passports returned spurred the creation of the above photo, a facetious reference to Air Asia’s slogan “Everyone Can Fly Now” which has gone viral in Malaysia. Earlier, Rosmah’s son Reza Aziz was allowed to leave the country despite his role in diverting 1MDB money into a Hollywood movie studio that made the film Wolf of Wall Street.

In addition, so many of the top members of UMNO were brought up on charges that they have become known as the Court Cluster wing of the party. They are all free although the entire leadership were said to have been paid individual bribes by Najib to keep him in power prior to the 2018 election.

“Their cases have been allowed to drag on and on,” said a Kuala Lumpur-based source in an email. “They have been given special privileges to travel abroad or constant postponement of their hearing on some of the most trivial of reasons. Many suspect that behind the scenes a great game is being played out and deals made. UMNO is interested in only one thing – returning to power as soon as possible; everything else including justice is negotiable. It does not augur well for justice in Malaysia.”

As such, Malaysia appears likely to join two other Southeast Asian nations – the Philippines and Indonesia – in letting plainly guilty individuals or families skate free and resume their predatory careers after convincing evidence of the theft of breathtaking sums of money. The Marcos family were never brought to justice despite allegations that the head of the family, Ferdinand Marcos, was believed to have looted US$5 billion to US$10 billion from the Philippine treasury with the willing participation of his wife Imelda. She is now in the Philippine legislature and their son Ferdinand Jr. is running for president. Likewise, the Suharto family in Indonesia was believed to have participated in the looting of at least US$15 billion or more. None has ever been brought to justice. The children are involved in substantial business dealings in Jakarta.

Earlier this week, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who returned to politics prior to the 2018 election to crusade for Najib’s prosecution, took to his blog Che Det to say it is increasingly likely that Najib will make a political comeback in the 15th general election, due in April 2023, as a candidate. Mahathir cited the delay in concluding Najib’s appeal process to his conviction and sentence.

“When will the Court of Appeal decide on Najib? If found guilty, he will then appeal to the Federal Court,” Mahathir wrote, adding that the appeal process will be lengthy, and by that time, GE15 would have been called, but the Federal Court would still have not decided Najib’s fate. “Of course, you can contest in GE15,” he said.

In mid-September, Najib signaled he was intending to stand for his old parliamentary seat in the town of Pekan in Pahang despite the fact that his conviction on corruption charges ought realistically to make him ineligible. He not only has been convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison for corruption and money laundering, both he and his wife face a plethora of additional charges. The US Justice Department described hundreds of millions of dollars of purchases of real estate, art and other possessions connected to the looting of the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd. Investment fund as the biggest kleptocracy case ever brought by the department.

Much of the loot amassed included US$273 million worth of jewelry, handbags and other valuables, the biggest haul by police in Malaysian history by far and a pretty penny for a man whose salary as prime minister and member of parliament was roughly US$120,000 a year. Police filled five trucks with cash in 26 currencies totaling US$28.6 million plus 457 handbags, including Hermes bags worth US$12 million, 423 watches valued at US$19 million, and 234 pairs of sunglasses worth US$93,000. Included were 1,400 necklaces, 2,200 rings, 2,100 bangles, 2,800 pairs of earrings, 1,600 brooches and 14 tiaras. The latter were hardly likely to be worn by Najib.

Assets seized in the US, believed to have been acquired for Rosmah by the playboy financier Low Taek Jho, included interests in the music company EMI Music, artwork by Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet, high-end real estate in New York and Beverly Hills, a US$35 million jet aircraft and a 300-foot yacht. Jho Low remains on the run himself, believed to be either Macau or China with a considerable stash of his own.

Normally convicted felons appeal their sentences from a jail cell. Yet Najib is not only free, he has played an energetic role in a string of by-elections won by UMNO and apparently retains a strong advisory role in the party, as does his henchman Zahid Hamidi, who like Najib remains free and continuing to politick despite being arrested and charged with 87 counts of a rainbow of corruption charges involving the theft of at least RM180 million including looting a charity that appears to have been set up for no other purpose but for Zahid to loot it. Both face additional trials. Some 99 witnesses have testified against him in court. Nonetheless, prosecutors raised no objection to his request to leave for medical treatment.

“There are too many ifs to get over for Najib to be able to contest,” Kuala Lumpur-based political analyst with deep connections to the ruling elites told Asia Sentinel in September. “My guess is he’s floating these thoughts to ensure he remains relevant and a power broker in a splintered UMNO whose prime minister needs every vote to stay in office. He’s hoping meantime to pressure the PM to push the judiciary to overturn the conviction. But while the UMNO simpletons may believe him, I don’t see this happening.”

Nonetheless, the exodus continues. In early October, a court allowed Zahid Hamidi to go overseas for medical treatment despite facing all those charges involving criminal breach of trust, receiving bribes and money-laundering revolving around tens of millions of ringgit.

A week or so later, Najib was given permission by the Court of Appeal to travel to Singapore for the birth of his grandchild. Rosmah, who faces additional corruption charges linked to a solar panel project for schools in Sarawak, was also allowed to fly down to Singapore for the birth.

The lawyer Shafee was released so he could fly to the United States and oversee his son’s enrolment in a US university. Shafee faces a variety of charges involving money laundering and engaging in transactions resulting from illegal activities, namely submitting incorrect tax returns. It remains to be seen how many others of the Court Cluster will seek the return of their passports.

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