KUALA LUMPUR: Former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak was charged on Wednesday (Aug 8) with three counts of money laundering, as part of a probe into how billions of dollars went missing from state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) during his term.
Dressed in a dark blue suit, Najib appeared calm as the charges were read out at the Kuala Lumpur high court. He pleaded not guilty, and was granted bail.
The 65-year-old former leader has also pleaded not guilty to three charges for criminal breach of trust and one charge for abuse of power that were levelled against him last month.
The money laundering charges relate to electronic transfers amounting to RM42 million (US$10.3 million) from SRC International, a former 1MDB unit, into Najib's personal bank account.
The offence carries a penalty of up to 15 years in jail and a fine of not less than five times the value of the proceeds of any illegal transfers, or RM5 million, whichever is higher. The criminal breach of trust and abuse of power charges carry sentences of 20 years each.
Najib was accompanied by his children as he arrived at the courthouse in a four-car motorcade. He left after the proceedings without speaking to the media.
"SRC, at the time of the so-called happening, was no longer a part of 1MDB. So it’s got nothing to do with 1MDB," Najib's lawyer Muhammad Shafee Abdullah told reporters outside the court.
SRC, created in 2011 by Najib's government to pursue overseas investment in energy resources, was a unit of 1MDB until it was moved to the finance ministry in 2012.
When asked if he thinks the case was a witch hunt, Shafee said: “My client and I hope that’s not the case."
The lawyer also requested a gag order in court, saying that a "cool down" period was needed.
He argued that one way to "dilute" prejudicial comments being made in public and the media was to delay the start of the trial.
High Court Judge Mohamad Nazlan Mohd Ghazali said a decision on when the trial begins, and on the gag order, would be made on Friday.
The RM1 million bail set for Najib for his criminal breach of trust and abuse of power charges has been extended to his money laundering charges as well.
Najib was summoned on Tuesday by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) for a new round of questioning, which lasted for about 45 minutes.
The scandal at 1MDB fully erupted in 2015 after media reports that hundreds of millions of dollars from 1MDB were diverted to his personal accounts.
Najib has consistently denied any wrongdoing, maintaining that those funds were donations from a Saudi royal, and that the bulk of them had been given back.
He and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, have been barred from leaving the country since he lost an election in May, and the new prime minister, his mentor-turned-foe, Mahathir Mohamad, relaunched an investigation into 1MDB.
Reopening the investigations into 1MDB after Najib lost power, Malaysian anti-graft officers have revealed how their earlier investigations were obstructed by Najib's government.
SRC has been the initial focus of Malaysian investigators as all the suspicious transactions involving it went through Malaysian entities, unlike other 1MDB-related transactions that went through foreign banks and companies.
Money allegedly siphoned off from SRC represents only a small fraction of the billions of dollars the US Department of Justice (DOJ) has said was misappropriated from 1MDB.
Najib had founded 1MDB and headed its advisory board.
Lawsuits filed in US courts by the DOJ allege that an estimated US$4.5 billion was misappropriated from 1MDB by high-level officials of the fund and their associates.
1MDB is being investigated by at least six countries, including Singapore, Switzerland and the United States, over alleged money laundering and graft.
Earlier this week, Indonesia handed over to Malaysia a US$250 million superyacht that had been impounded following claims by the DOJ that it was purchased by fugitive Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho with funds siphoned off from 1MDB.