By DASHVEENJIT KAUR / Pic By MUHD AMIN AMIN NAHARUL
The corruption trial of former Prime Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Razak has been postponed pending the outcome of an appeal over the transfer of some charges to the High Court from the lower court.
The Court of Appeal yesterday granted Najib’s defence to postpone his trial on the seven charges linked to SRC International Sdn Bhd.
A three-member bench said Najib had cited special circumstances and asked for a stay of his corruption trial that had been scheduled to start this morning.
In the unanimous ruling, the panel said it was better to resolve the question before the trial because “it would be a waste of time for the trial to proceed only to become a nullity later”.
While Malaysians had been anticipating Najib’s day in court, it has also been widely expected that his defence would do its best to delay the trial.
Yesterday’s successful appeal was filed last Friday in what was seen as a last ditch effort to delay the trial related to allegations over missing RM42 million from SRC International, once a subsidiary of 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).
It is just one of several trials that Najib will face in connection with 1MDB.
Legal sources said the postponement would not take too long to resolve and could be done within a couple of weeks, but it has already added to the months of waiting since the trial was set last year.
Some observers, however, said the fact that the Appeal Court granted Najib’s appeal to postpone his case is a reflection of Malaysia’s judicial independence under the new government which took power last May.
Singapore Institute of International Affairs’ senior fellow Oh Ei Sun said the postponement shows that the judiciary is independent from the government or from private or partisan interests.
“It shows that judicial independence is indeed a practice now. The postponement is expected, although the Pekan MP has assembled a formidable legal team to ensure his appeal is being heard,” Oh said.
Najib was first charged on July 4 last year, with three counts of criminal breach of trust and abuse of power for gratification involving RM42 million from SRC International, a unit of 1MDB since 2011.
Najib, as a public servant, was alleged to have misappropriated RM27 million, RM5 million and RM10 million belonging to SRC International when he acted as its advisor.
The offence falls under Section 409 of the Penal Code which carries a maximum 20 years’ imprisonment and whipping, upon conviction.
He was also charged with abuse of power to secure RM42 million loan from the Retirement Fund Inc (KWAP) for SRC International.
On top of that, he was charged with using his position for a RM42 million payout to himself when he took part or was involved in making the decision to provide government guarantees for a RM4 billion loan from KWAP.
The charge under Section 23 of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) Act 2009 carries a sentence of up to 20 years’ jail, or a fine of RM10,000 or five times the bribe amount, whichever is higher.
Najib had pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
Various reports stated that the prosecutors had handed nearly 3,000 pages of documents to the defence ahead of the trial, including statements from 26 witnesses, some of whom were SRC International officials.
The main witness for the prosecution is the former director of SRC International, Suboh Mohd Yassin, who himself surrendered to MACC counterparts in Indonesia after three years on the run, according to reports.
Suboh was granted full witness protection for turning himself in to authorities.
The prosecution is expected to call around 60 other witnesses, including government officials.
Oh said should no proper investigations or prosecutions be brought forth with regards to 1MDB and related scandals, the new Pakatan Harapan government would be roundly condemned.
“There can be no closure of the past and the ushering in of a ‘new Malaysia’, without holding some of the main characters accountable,” he said.
He added that conducting a fair and open corruption trial will hardly soil a country’s name. In fact, the action would rather “enhance it”.
“Everyone understands that the case is a complicated and transnational one, so it would understandably take a long time to even investigate, let alone prosecute.
“But if the new government is seen conducting it summarily and expeditiously without due process, it would actually reflect badly on the administration,” he added.
Oh said the whole process could take years — which might include appeals — before the cases are ‘settled’.
Meanwhile, Bower Group Asia analyst Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani believes the delay of the trials will further frustrate the Pakatan Harapan government and empower Najib.
“The outcome of the trial could influence the next general election. This is because Najib is seen wooing the Malaysian electorate via his social media and ‘Najib 2.0 pesona’, and the postponement will only allow him to continue doing so,” Asrul Hadi told The Malaysian Reserve.
He added that if Najib is found guilty, the results could then heavily weigh on Umno and its cooperation with PAS.
“A guilty verdict could also be a moral victory for Pakatan Harapan and its new Malaysia. However, while the trial may put an end or closure to 1MDB, voters will also be looking at how their quality of life has improved since May 2018,” Asrul said.
He said the lower income Malaysians, who make up the bulk of the electorate, they are mainly concerned about what impact the trial would have on bread and butter issues.
The 1MDB scandal began in 2009, when the newly sworn-in Najib established it as a government fund, with the intended purpose of attracting foreign investment in Malaysia.
Instead, over the next five years, billions of dollars were allegedly embezzled out of the country or laundered through subsidiary companies by those who ran it.
A number of corrupt 1MDB officials were reported to have treated this public trust as a personal bank account and results of investigations have seen almost US$4.5 billion (RM18.32 billion) was eventually stolen from 1MDB.
Najib faces a total of 42 charges relating to 1MDB, ranging from corruption and money laundering to abuse of power, taking illegal bribes and criminal breach of trust.
If found guilty and given consecutive sentences, the 65-year-old Najib could be facing years, if not a lifetime, behind bars.
His wife is facing 16 criminal charges, which she pleads not guilty to.
The former premier is represented by senior lawyer Tan Sri Muhammad Shafee Abdullah and legal team consisting of lawyers Harvinderjit Singh, Datuk Raj Krishnan, Farhan Read, Rahmat Hazlan and Muhammad Farhan Muhammad Shafee.
The prosecution team is being led by Datuk Sulaiman Abdullah with Datuk Seri Gopal Sri Ram as the deputy public prosecutor, and the team from the Attorney General’s Chambers assisting.
Najib’s properties were also raided by the police the moment Pakatan Harapan came into power in May last year, where a cache of luxury goods worth up to US$273 million — including 1,400 necklaces, 567 designer handbags, 423 watches, 2,200 rings, 1,600 brooches and 14 tiaras — were seized.