Explainer-Behind bars, Malaysia’s Najib has few ‘get out of jail’ cards left to play

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Having begun a 12-year jail sentence on Tuesday, former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak is expected to scramble for ways to obtain early release after losing his final appeal in a case linked to a multi-billion dollar corruption scandal .

Whatever options Najib pursues, there are still four more cases related to graft at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and other government agencies that could result in more jail time and financial ruin for the ex-premier.

REVIEW OF FINAL VERDICT

That Najib, who was prime minister from 2009 to 2018, is in jail at a time when his own party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), is in power under new leadership indicates he may no longer be able to count on political favor .

Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat, who chaired a Federal Court panel of five judges that threw out Najib’s appeal against the conviction and sentencing by a lower court, has strongly asserted the judiciary’s independence.

But Najib can still apply for a review of the decision by the Federal Court that will then be looked at by a new panel of judges.

The threshold for such a review is very high, and a reversal of any verdict by the nation’s top court is rare.

A total of three Malaysian courts have now found Najib guilty since the charges were first brought on in 2018, and their comments on the former premier’s role have been damning.

He has been found guilty of criminal breach of trust, abuse of power and money laundering for illegally receiving about $10 million from SRC International, a former unit of 1MDB.

Prosecutors say Najib knew the money he got from SRC International was from illegal activities, while Najib argues that he was misled by fugitive financier Jho Low and other 1MDB officials into believing that the funds banked in his accounts were donated by the Saudi royal family.

High Court Judge Mohamad Nazlan, who first convicted Najib in 2020, said it was “far-fetched” to believe Najib could have been mistaken. He also described the case as the “worst” kind of abuse of power and graft.

On Tuesday, Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat and her fellow judges at the Federal Court also dismissed Najib’s defense and said they stood by the high court’s decision.

“We agree that the defense is so inherently inconsistent and incredible that it does not raise a reasonable doubt on the prosecution case,” they said in their judgment.

A ROYAL PARDON

Najib could also apply for a pardon, which will then be reviewed by a ‘pardons board’ headed by Malaysia’s king. The Malaysian prime minister’s input could also be taken.

The length of the pardon process varies. Royal pardons are only granted for criminal cases, and not bankruptcy, which Najib also faces.

A full pardon would allow Najib to return to active politics and even make a comeback as prime minister.

But for now, Tuesday’s verdict prevents him from contesting elections.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim spent three years in jail on what he said were politically trumped up charges — before being pardoned by the king just days after Najib’s defeat in the 2018 election.

A son of Malay nobility, Najib is believed to be close to some of Malaysia’s sultans who take turns to be the country’s monarch in a unique rotational system.

In May, Najib’s social media posts showed him attending Eid celebrations with King Al-Sultan Abdullah at the royal palace in Pahang state, from where they both hail.

Constitutional lawyer New Sin Yew said there was no prescribed time for a pardon process but the petition should be filed as soon as practicable after the conviction.

If Najib does not file the pardon within 14 days, he will lose his position as lawmaker, New said. Otherwise, he will lose his seat in parliament, where he has been a lawmaker for 46 years, when the assembly is dissolved for the next elections.

MORE COURT CASES

The other four cases against Najib also carry jail terms and heavy financial penalties.

Investigators have said some $4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB – co-founded by Najib during his first year as prime minister in 2009 – and that over $1 billion went to accounts linked to Najib.

He is also fighting a bankruptcy case. Tax authorities issued a bankruptcy notice to him last year over an unpaid tax bill totaling more than $400 million.

If he is declared bankrupt, he would lose his parliamentary seat and the right to contest elections.

(Reporting by A. Ananthalakshmi and Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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