Malaysia's Najib Loses Criminal Appeal But Remains Free to Politick
Court finds all charges proven beyond reasonable doubt
The unanimous ruling by a three-person court of appeal in Malaysia that Najib Abdul Razak is guilty of seven charges including abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering doesn’t put the former prime minister in jail yet and he appears set to go on playing an integral role in strengthening the United Malays National Organization’s position in power despite the verdict.
Although he faces the eventuality of being behind bars and possibly hoping for a royal pardon from Malaysia’s king, Najib remains free after the appellate court, led by Justice Abdul Karim Abdul Jalil and including Has Zanah Mehat and Vazeer Alam Mydin Meera, refused to hear additional evidence.
“If you had stolen milk powder for a hungry child, they would have sent you straight to jail,” said a Kuala Lumpur businessman. “You couldn’t afford a high-powered lawyer like (Mohamad Shafee Abdullah, Najib’s longtime United Malays National Organization counsel). But that’s the way it is – different sets of rules for those with money and power and for those without any status in life.”
Najib is instead at liberty on RM2 billion bail (US$473,740) to appeal his RM210 million fine and 12-year jail term in a case involving RM42 million embezzled from SRC International, which was established to develop national energy resources by 1Malaysia Development Bhd., the government-backed investment fund that collapsed in 2017 in the biggest financial scandal in Malaysian history. Najib was accused of looting the company for his own purposes.
The 68-year-old former premier still faces other legal action in cases stemming from the 1MDB failure, which cost the Malaysian treasury at least US$5.4 billion in mismanagement and theft. Najib’s wife Rosmah also faces charges relating to the case, which the US Justice Department termed the biggest kleptocracy case it had ever investigated because of the array of assets amassed in the United States that were allegedly beneficially owned by the couple.
But while Najib now faces a final reckoning by the country’s highest tribunal, the Federal Court, given the sluggish progress of justice in Malaysia’s judiciary, it’s likely that no decision will be handed down perhaps for a year or possibly as long as two. In a remarkably lenient legal action for someone who allegedly embezzled billions, he has even been allowed to leave the country after his conviction despite the fact that he and his wife attempted to fly out of the country on a chartered jet to Indonesia after it became clear that the Barisan Nasional had lost the 2018 election and that he could be arrested for massive corruption.
The appellate decision, however, is nonetheless ominous for Najib. The federal court, according to a Kuala Lumpur-based political analyst, is relatively free of political bias and it could well rule against him.
Despite his remaining free, the immediate effect of the decision is to prevent him from standing for office again in the Pahang state constituency he now holds. He vowed in September to newspaper editors to return to stand despite the conviction. The continuing case opens the possibility that his son will stand in his place given that a general election is probably due before the federal court rules. There is conjecture that should he be freed either by pardon or a less likely federal court acquittal, his son would then resign the seat so that he could reclaim it. But that is well in the future.
“The general election is very likely to be held in the next six to nine months and I don’t see how Najib can contest as his appeal wouldn’t have been dealt with by then,” the political analyst said. “Chances are, he will still be found guilty because the appeals court was his best chance. The Federal Court is made up of pretty decent judges and his chances of succeeding there are almost nil. Will he spend any jail time? I think he will spend some time. Eventually, I believe he will be pardoned. But then – I am guessing as this is how Malaysia works.”
Despite his precarious legal situation, Najib arguably remains the most powerful figure and a kingmaker in United Malays National Organization politics. He played a key role in recent state elections in Melaka, an urban district of nearly a million people 120 km south of Kuala Lumpur that because of its ethnically mixed urban population is considered a bellwether for the country. The Barisan Nasional drubbed the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition in that race, taking back seats it lost in the general election in 2018.
“This doesn’t mean he can’t make a comeback, it just means that he’s not flying as fast as yesterday," University of Tasmania’s director of Asia Institute James Chin told the Straits Times of Singapore. "Najib is still the top leader in UMNO. As long as he’s not in jail, he will remain a key political player, especially among the wider Malay community. Despite the fact that he’s been found guilty, he’s still the most popular Malay politician (and) far ahead in terms of social media outreach."
Especially since the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan coalition government in February 2021, and the ensuing turmoil as contending forces fought for power, Najib has played a crucial part in engineering UMNO’s rehabilitation despite the fact that most of its leadership, derisively called the “court cluster,” has faced charges of corruption. Ahmad Zahid bin Hamidi, the party president, is awaiting a verdict on 47 charges of looting a charity.
Nonetheless, first an outside component of the Perikatan Nasional coalition headed by Muhyiddin Yassin that took power after Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad abruptly resigned, the party has shrewdly maneuvered itself back into contention, with the 62-year-old Ismail Sabri Yaakob, a longtime party warhorse and UMNO vice president, taking over as prime minister on August 21.
Najib has forcefully and publicly fought by-elections that the party has won all across the country despite his status as a convicted felon, chipping away at the Pakatan Harapan majority in parliament. Shrewdly playing on racial and ethnic issues, the party looks likely to continue to strengthen its hold on power despite the aura of corruption. And whether from jail or from parliament, Najib will remain a presence.