Holding a former prime minister to account could mean a political shakeup and a dragged out court process.
Kuala Lumpur - Hundreds of supporters thronged the Kuala Lumpur High Court awaiting Najib Razak’s verdict on the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) trial, where the former prime minister could be jailed up to 20 years and slapped with more than $1 million in fines.
Over the last two days, the love felt for Najib from his supporters has been evident in the way they have been filling the courthouse, flouting social distancing measures despite the rules being adhered to around the world with regards to the coronavirus outbreak.
Fans of Najib, who affectionately call him “bossku” (my boss), simply do not believe in his guilt.
Speaking before the trial, Amran from Kelantan, was convinced of the former leader’s innocence and blamed the witch hunt on the previous Pakatan Harapan (PH) government.
“Najib has always been okay. It is just this PH disturbing him, they even wanted to go after his wife and daughter,” he said holding a placard stating ‘Justice for Najib’.
These were some of the comments voiced by the supporters who turned out en masse, but Malaysia on the whole does not necessarily share the same view. The judiciary, for example, differs from the court of public opinion.
Najib is, after all, the only sitting prime minister to lose an election, and according to Barisan Nasional supporters, it was due to the 1MDB scandal.
When the verdict came, Najib was convicted of seven counts of graft involving SRC International Sdn Bhd, a 1MDB subsidiary.
He has been sentenced to twelve years in jail and fined $49.38 million after being found guilty of abusing his power as Malaysia’s top man.
This was a landmark and long awaited decision, according to the Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4)’s executive director, Cynthia Gabriel.
“History has been created, as never before has a former Prime Minister been charged and convicted of corruption, and seven counts of corruption at that,” says Gabriel.
She added that the crimes connected to Najib had disgraced Malaysia on an international stage, and that no one in office should behave in the way he did.
“This verdict by itself has demonstrated the magnanimity of the crime, and that corruption has reached the highest levels of power. Abuse of power for personal gain has been shamelessly exposed,” she said.
Najib - former Chairman of Barisan Nasional - was found guilty of receiving $9.88 million into his personal account from SRC.
The 67-year-old was convicted on three counts of criminal breach of trust, three counts of money-laundering and one for abuse of power.
The former finance minister also has four other corruption trials that are forthcoming - they all relate to 1MDB.
Where to now?
Once the verdict was given, a sombre mood fell upon the court. The crowd let out gasps of despair and immediately went on to chant ‘dissolve the parliament’ and called for snap polls.
Forty-year-old Mashitah, who hails from Najib’s home state of Pahang, was on the verge of tears when she heard the sentencing.
“This cannot be true. They are lying. He is innocent, he will come out of this free,” she was heard telling a group of supporters.
Mashitah was right: Najib can apply to the Court of Appeal. He was granted stay in the final judgement for both the fine and jail term.
If the appeal is dismissed, Najib will be able to appeal to the federal court provided he can get leave to do so. This process could drag on for at least a year, according to lawyers.
Hishomuddin Bakar, of research outfit Ilham Centre, said Najib’s conviction will be intentionally stretched out over time by his hard-working defence, and added that if he is to see jail time, it will not be anytime soon.
“The charges will go to appeal and the federal court. It will take some time. Until then Najib will be a thorn in everyone’s sides,” he said.
Another question which now arises is whether Najib’s party, United Malays National Organization (Umno), can continue defending him, Hishomuddin added.
“Now we need to see; what is Umno's reaction? They already lost the election because of him. Are they now finally going to cut him off?”
The Pakatan Harapan coalition took over from the government after it defeated Najib’s Barisan Nasional in the 14th general election - they had based their entire election campaign around the misappropriation surrounding 1MDB.
Former Umno youth chief, Khairy Jamaluddin, who was a staunch supporter of Najib during his administration, today said the party should move on from the convicted leader.
“This is the time for Umno to move forward as a political party and rejuvenate. Even though it is our individual right to support Najib, I hope Umno does not get dragged into this case,” said the current Malaysian minister of science, technology and innovation minister.
New Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin will also see today’s news both as a victory for himself and his new Perikatan Nasional government which came to power by overthrowing former allies, Pakatan Harapan.
Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at think tank, the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said this would be the perfect window to demonstrate that the new government is fair and is not interfering in the judiciary in any way.
He added that by allowing the prosecution to take place, Muhyiddin also eliminated a potential rival in the form of Najib in the event of a future election.
“Muhyiddin will not be unhappy to see Najib convicted. This is the fifth year anniversary of his (Muhyiddin) sacking, this is a sweet twist of fate.
“He now can claim his government is transparent and still prosecuted those guilty. He can score political points from the public and his party,” Oh said.
Ironically, five years ago, Najib dropped Muhyiddin as his deputy prime minister when the latter openly questioned 1MDB.
The situation is now very different: while Muhyiddin has the top job, Najib’s potential future as a felon is one of prison cells and appeals.