Getting Najib Off the Hook

Mistrial on 12-year sentence looks likely, then possible return to power

John Berthelsen, Asia Sentinel

The stage, apparently, is being set to get former Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak off the hook for complicity in the biggest theft of public funds in Malaysian history: the loss of US$4.5 billion from the state-backed 1Malaysia Bhd investment fund, which capsized in 2015 with US$11.75 billion in debt, which was assumed by the government.

Omens of the whitewashing of Najib and what has become known as the “court cluster” of United Malays National Organization officials facing criminal allegations have been arising almost since the Pakatan Harapan government lost power in February of 2020. They include the July 2021 appellate decision reversing the conviction of former UMNO Secretary General Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor on charges of accepting RM2 million (US$476,000) in bribes. It is a case that has been described as basically legalizing bribery in the country.

The vehicle to keep Najib out of jail is likely to be a mistrial, which could be called over new public allegations over the involvement of former Bank Negara Governor Zeti Akhtar Ahmad’s husband, Tawfiq Ayman, in the 1MBD scandal. But his role has been widely known in Malaysian political circles for years, raising the question of the timing in making it public now.

According to reports circulating in Malaysia, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission revealed that Singapore had repatriated US$15.4 million in 1MDB-linked funds to Malaysia that involved a company co-owned by Tawfiq. According to these reports, Singapore authorities alerted Bank Negara about suspicious transactions from the fugitive financier Jho Low to a Tawfiq’s company when Zeti was still heading the central bank.

Zeti, then a widely-respected central bank governor, was a member of the ousted Pakatan Harapan government’s Council of Eminent Persons, which played a role in ousting Najib and his United Malays National Organization from power in the 2018 national elections. She was also appointed chairperson of the Permodalan Nasional Berhad investment fund overseeing RM400 billion of public funds. She testified for the prosecution in Najib’s 2019 trial for abuse of power, criminal breach of trust, money laundering, and tampering with the 1MDB audit report, which downplayed allegations of criminality.

In July of 2020, the 68-year-old Najib was convicted on all seven counts and was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment and fined RM210 million. He is the first Malaysian premier ever to be convicted of a crime. Despite that, he has remained free on appeal and has played an instrumental role in a series of elections that have seen the scandal-steeped United Malays National Organization return to power. After recent state elections that resulted in a drubbing for the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition, one source called him the most powerful man in Malaysia and predicted his return to power despite his role in the 1MDB affair, which the US Department of Justice called the biggest kleptocracy case in the department’s history, which saw the seizure of tens of millions of dollars of property in the US that were beneficially owned by Najib, his wife Rosmah Mansor and others.

The involvement of Zeti’s husband in the 1MDB affair has raised “serious questions” in the charges against Najib, according to the youth wing of the Malaysian Chinese Association, a component party in the Barisan Nasional, the coalition headed by UMNO, because the charges against Najib were filed before investigations into Zeti’s family involvement was completed, MCA Youth said.

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