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Malaysian ex-premier Najib loses appeal, begins 12-year sentence

Former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak speaks to supporters outside a courtroom in Putrajaya on Aug. 23. (Ahmad Luqman Ismail/EPA-EPE/Shutterstock)

Former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak on Tuesday began a 12-year prison term after losing his final appeal in a far-reaching case related to the massive looting of a state investment fund.

The 69-year-old, who from 2009 to 2018 held a firm grip on power, is the first former prime minister from Malaysia to be sent to prison. In 2020 he was found guilty of various crimes, including money laundering and abuse of power, but remained free while appeals were pending. He has maintained his innocence.

On Tuesday, a five-member panel of judges from Malaysia’s Federal Court concluded that Najib’s appeal was without merit and that the original High Court decision had been correct. His sentence is to be served at Kajang prison on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, and he is to be assessed a $47 million fine, the Associated Press reported.

“This is a simple and straightforward case of abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering,” Chief Justice Maimun Tuan Mat said as she announced the decision, according to the AP.

Najib’s imprisonment is the latest in a string of stunning developments in the case revolving around 1MDB, also known as the 1Malaysia Development Berhad, a state fund co-founded by the former prime minister during his first term in 2009. The U.S. Justice Department later found that at least $4.5 billion of the fund had been misappropriated by high-level officials in a global scandal.

The enormous scale of corruption drew in international finance groups including Goldman Sachs, which reached a $3.9 billion settlement with Malaysia to resolve criminal charges related to 1MDB in 2020. Money from the graft was involved in funding the Martin Scorsese film “The Wolf of Wall Street” and used to buy hotels in Beverly Hills and Vincent van Gogh paintings, according to investigators.

More than $1 billion in stolen money was sent to Najib, according to Malaysian authorities, though the charges that landed him to prison related to a specific $9.8 million payment.

The former prime minister has dismissed the charges against him as politically motivated. Najib has claimed he was the victim of financier Low Taek Jho (known as Jho Low), who is still a fugitive.

A member of Malaysia’s political elite, Najib is the third member of his family to serve as prime minister, following his father and uncle. He was educated at a British boarding school and studied economics at the University of Nottingham, before becoming the youngest member of Parliament at the age of just 23 following the death of his father.

Entering the prime minister’s office himself in 2009, he had pledged both economic and political reforms. However, by the time he was forced from office after losing an election in 2018 — the first time the ruling coalition, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), had lost since independence — he was enmeshed in the 1MDB scandal and increasingly seen as an authoritarian.

Opposition leaders welcomed Tuesday’s court decision and noted the bravery shown by court officials — including Maimun, the country’s first female chief justice, who had been accused of bias by Najib’s lawyers and received death threats from his supporters.

However, Tuesday’s ruling could prove a muted victory for those seeking to hold Najib accountable. There is still the prospect of a royal pardon for the former prime minister, who remains popular with a segment of society and influential in UMNO, which is back in government as part of a coalition. The whereabouts of Jho Low is still unclear, with Beijing denying reports he is in China.

According to reports in local media outlets, Najib was in court when Tuesday’s verdict was read out, accompanied by his wife and three children. Some accounts said that he appeared shocked by the decision.

However, a note apparently written to his family before the ruling decision indicates that the former prime minister had been contemplating his fate. It alludes to times that he had sacrificed his personal life for politics and suggests he would find support from his Muslim faith going forward.

“The world of politics and public service has its advantages and disadvantages,” he wrote, according to a copy of the note to his family posted to his official Facebook page.