KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia's disgraced former leader Najib Razak pleaded not guilty to all charges against him as he went on trial on Wednesday (Apr 3) over a multi-billion-dollar financial scandal that brought down his government last year and sent shockwaves around the world.
Arriving at court in Kuala Lumpur, Najib was greeted by supporters and paused for a short prayer session before he went into the building.
Shouts of "hidup Najib" or "long live Najib" could be heard at the complex.
The 65-year-old faced seven charges in the first of several criminal proceedings over his alleged involvement in the looting of sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state investment vehicle established to develop the economy of the Southeast Asian nation.
The former premier and his cronies are accused of plundering billions of dollars from 1MDB and spending it on everything from high-end real estate to artworks and a luxury yacht.
He had been tipped to win another term in office easily last year and extend his coalition's six-decade rule, only to be soundly defeated by his former boss, Mahathir Mohamad, who rode a wave of public anger over 1MDB to the premiership.
In the months that followed, once-dormant investigations into the controversy were relaunched and Najib was hit with dozens of corruption charges linked to the plundering of the fund.
'NEAR ABSOLUTE POWER'
Dressed in a dark blue suit, the former leader - who was premier for almost a decade - looked calm and smiled as he took his seat in the dock. His defence team made an 11th-hour bid to get proceedings delayed but the judge ruled against them.
The trial relates to suspected transfers totalling 42 million ringgit (US$10.3 million) into Najib's bank account from SRC International, a former 1MDB unit.
Najib has pleaded not guilty to three counts of criminal breach of trust, three counts of money laundering and one count of abuse of power over the transfers, which involve a fraction of the US$1 billion investigators allege made its way into his accounts.
Najib has consistently denied wrongdoing, saying the charges against him are politically motivated.
The much-awaited high profile trial was heard before Judge Mohd Nazlan Mohd Ghazali.
Opening the prosecution, Attorney-General Tommy Thomas told the High Court that it was the "first trial in our courts against a former prime minister, who for nearly a decade occupied the most powerful office in the land and wielded near absolute power.
"Such privilege carries with it enormous responsibility.
"The accused is not above the law and his prosecution and this trial should serve as precedents for all future holders of this august office," he added.
Prosecution evidence would establish that Najib's credit card was charged with expenses of US$130,625 at a Chanel store in Honolulu, Thomas added.
After the first witness, Companies Commission of Malaysia official Muhamad Akmaludin Abdullah, gave largely technical evidence related to corporate records, the trial was adjourned.
The judge set the next hearing for Apr 15, and trial dates until May 10. Najib left without commenting, to cheers from his supporters waiting outside court.
Far from being considered a pariah, the ex-leader has gained a following among members of the country's Muslim majority as some are worried their long-held privileges are being eroded under the new government.
He has become an unlikely social media phenomenon by attacking the new administration's policies online.
TIME TO 'FACE JUSTICE'
Najib was initially due to stand trial in February, but appeals by his defence team over procedural matters saw his case put on hold until a judge last week ruled the trial should finally proceed.
It was a relief for the government, as there had been mounting public anger about the delay in bringing Najib to justice. The investigations of 1MDB are seen as a test of Mahathir's promises to root out corruption.
Fahmi Reza, a graphic artist who was jailed and fined for depicting Najib in a caricature as a sinister clown, said it was the ex-premier's turn to "face justice".
"Today, it is your turn to be dragged here to face justice for the crime of corruption and abuse of power during your reign," he said in a tweet.
Najib's mentor-turned-nemesis Mahathir, now 93 and in his second stint in office, has pledged to bring the younger man to justice and bring back the huge sums of cash stolen from 1MDB.
Since losing the election, Najib has been slapped with 42 criminal charges, most linked to 1MDB and other state entities.
The luxurious lifestyle of Najib and his family also came to light with the discovery of nearly US$300 million worth of goods and cash at properties linked to him.
Najib's wife Rosmah Mansor has also been charged with corruption. She has pleaded not guilty.
At least six countries, including the United States, Switzerland and Singapore, have launched money laundering and graft investigations into 1MDB, set up by Najib in 2009.
The US Department of Justice believes US$4.5 billion in total was looted from 1MDB.
Malaysia has also charged Wall Street titan Goldman Sachs over the scandal, alleging the bank and its former employees stole billions of dollars from 1MDB.
Goldman units and two ex-bankers are accused of misappropriating US$2.7 billion, bribing officials and giving false statements in relation to bond issues they arranged for the fund. The bank has vowed to fight the charges.
While many of his cohorts have been caught and charged in Malaysian courts, the alleged mastermind behind the 1MDB scandal, playboy financier Jho Low, is still at large.
On Wednesday the Malaysian government said a luxury yacht allegedly bought by Low with US$250 million of stolen 1MDB money had been sold for around half that price. The yacht was returned to Malaysia after being seized last year in Indonesia.