Malaysian government system under pressure after Najib verdict
Malaysia’s justice system is facing a severe challenge from supporters of former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who want to free him by royal pardon from a 12-year prison sentence on seven counts of abuse of power, money laundering and criminal breach of trust to funnel millions of dollars into his own pockets through an offshoot of bankrupt investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, which collapsed in 2016 due to mismanagement and corruption.
Despite his conviction, Najib remains one of the most powerful political figures in the country, an influential kingmaker within the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), the country’s largest political party. As it became increasingly clear that successive courts would uphold his conviction, political pressure mounted to try to find a way to keep him out of jail.
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Hundreds of pro-Najib protesters, mostly dressed in black, marched towards Istana, the national palace, demanding an immediate pardon following his shock sentencing. A small group of protesters also gathered outside the Federal Court, hurling abuse at the Chief Justice for her verdict sending Najib to jail.
Mahathir Mohamed, the former prime minister who prosecuted Najib with criminality allegations that played a major role in the fall of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition in the 2018 elections, predicted that Najib would likely receive a royal pardon from the king of Malaysia Al-Sultan Abdullah, and would also be excused from paying the 210 million ringgit fine imposed on him earlier this week by the country’s highest court.
There are concerns, for example, about the king’s close relationship with Najib, giving him tacit support during his trial by inviting him to palace receptions. Najib is one of the four so-called Orang Besaror alumni holding the title Orang Kaya Indera Shah Bandar, which he inherited from his late father, a former prime minister. It is a direct link to the Pahang Royal house led by the current king.
However, while Najib has considerable sympathy in the ethnic Malay community, there is also widespread anger over perceptions that he and senior UMNO officials have engaged in widespread looting from the government for decades, s significantly extending beyond 1MDB to a plethora of expensive government contracts and government-related businesses.
Thus, any immediate pardon could possibly be the electoral end of UMNO. Many Malaysians are proud that their country’s legal system has finally achieved integrity. A pardon for Najib would destroy trust in the justice system and symbolize Malaysia as a country where justice is a two-tier system, treating VIPs differently from the rest of the population.
Najib’s imprisonment has severely weakened the so-called “judicial group” of senior UMNO officials who face charges following Najib’s arrest in 2018. The trial of UMNO’s president, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s charge of looting a charity is quickly coming to an end, and he faces the same fate as Najib if found guilty. Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, will hear the verdict of his trial on September 1.
The Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (Bersih) has so far collected at least 50,000 signatures in an online petition to the king asking him not to pardon Najib, who faces four more trials for allegedly using his position to obtain bribes totaling 32 billion ringgit (USD). 7.16 billion) and 21 money laundering charges involving the accounts of bankrupt government-backed investment fund 1MDB, which collapsed in 2016 with at least $5.4 billion lost to the corruption and mismanagement.
In yet another case, Najib is charged, along with Mohd Irwan Serigar Abdullah, with six counts of breach of trust involving 6.64 billion ringgit of public funds in their capacity as Minister of Finance and Secretary General of the Treasury. . He is also accused, along with former 1MDB CEO Arul Kanda Kandasamy, of falsifying a 1MDB audit report.
Najib’s supporters continued to allege that Judge Mohd Nazlan, who presided over Najib’s sentencing in 2020, had a conflict of interest and demanded that the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission investigate him. When the appeals court did not allow Najib’s lawyer, Hisyam Teh Poh Teik, to present new evidence, Najib directly attacked Chief Justice Tengku Maimun, seeking his recusal after claiming that she had a conflict of interest due to anti-Najib comments made by her husband on social media. media following the Barisan’s defeat in the 2018 general election. Legal scholars have largely dismissed such claims.
Najib’s legal team also complains that the final judgment was leaked on social media before the appeal hearing was completed. Despite this, opinion around the legal profession considers that the reasons Najib’s defense team planned to present on final appeal would not suffice for the entire bench and were almost certain to be dismissed – as it was.
The bizarre antics that occurred, with Najib repeatedly swapping legal teams, which appeared to be a last-minute attempt to delay proceedings, were seen to have been orchestrated with the pardon request in mind. This is supported by Najib’s camp’s altered narrative over the past week, claiming he was not given a fair trial.
Najib now claims that two judges in two courts had reason to be biased against him. His team also argue that the court’s action to block UK-based Queen’s Counsel C Jonathan Laidlaw from representing the former prime minister was unfair. These arguments have all been rejected by the courts, but are potentially compelling arguments for a pardon. In the words of Barisan Nasional Secretary General Zambry Abdul Kadir, “Najib should have been given space and judicial process based on (the) existing legal provisions.”
Article 42(1) of the Malaysian Constitution grants the King the power to grant a judicial pardon. In addition, Section 42(4)(b) states that he must be on the advice of the Board of Pardons, composed in this case of the Prime Minister, three other members, with the King presiding as chairman.
The procedure is long and cumbersome, with some legal opinions stipulating that the person granted a pardon must have served at least part of their sentence before applying for clemency. Other legal opinions have stated that, as Najib still faces criminal trials over other matters, it would potentially be necessary to grant a number of pardons separately to Najib to fully exculpate him.
However, there is precedent, and perhaps nothing prevents the king from granting a full and complete pardon. A pardon was hastily prepared and granted to Anwar Ibrahim after the 2018 general election, with Mahathir as Prime Minister leading the process in just days.
If Najib does not seek a royal pardon within the next 14 days, he will automatically be disqualified from his parliamentary seat in Pekan. Therefore, there is a very high probability that his legal team is preparing a plea for royal pardon at this very moment.
Najib has only one other option and that is to seek judicial review of his appeal. It’s unlikely to accomplish anything, so a plea for mercy seems like a last hope. His troubles have left Prime Minister Ismail Sabri looking much stronger and able to wait before calling a general election.
By distancing himself from Najib and Zahid, Ismail Sabri hopes to face the next elections with a clean slate in terms of corruption. However, the depth and spread of the rapidly emerging LCS Navy ship scandal has yet to fully surface and implicate senior members of his cabinet. Ismail Sabri does not have much choice in the matter, according to political experts.
Najib’s incarceration will not quietly take him out of the national spotlight. He has yet to attend civil and criminal trials, which will ensure he remains in the public eye. The VIP conditions that Najib finds himself in Kajang prison could very well allow him to communicate with the outside world. Najib’s imprisonment has not yet closed the book on him.
Murray Hunter is a development specialist based in Southeast Asia and a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel.
Copyright: Asia Sentinel 2022