KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - As a Malaysian judge read out a verdict of guilty on all charges, former prime minister Najib Razak sat silently in the dock at the end of the first of five graft trials linked to scandal-tainted state fund 1MDB.
Najib offered no visible reaction. Masked against the coronavirus, wearing a brown suit with a red and black striped tie, he had recited a brief prayer, flanked by leaders of his political party, before he entered the dock.
High court judge Mohamad Nazlan Mohamad Ghazali sentenced Najib to 12 years jail and a 210 million ringgit ($49 million) fine for abuse of power for receiving nearly $10 million from SRC International, a former unit of the state fund.
Najib was also slapped with a 10-year jail term for each of the three charges of criminal breach of trust and three charges of money laundering.
Mohamad Nazlan ordered the sentences to run concurrently and allowed a stay on the jail term and fine pending an appeal.
“This is definitely not the end of the world, because there’s a process of appeal and we hope that we would be successful then,” Najib told reporters outside the court.
“We are always positive, we believe in our innocence, we believe that we have a strong case.”
Najib, 67, has suffered a dramatic slide in fortunes since he was first charged in 2018, after he led his National Front ruling coalition to its first election defeat in six decades since independence from Britain.
He had faced a public backlash over accusations of rampant corruption in his administration and his family’s opulent lifestyle of overseas holidays and luxury shopping sprees.
In the weeks after the election loss, authorities seized hundreds of luxury handbags, jewellery and millions of dollars in cash during raids on properties linked to his family.
Najib was later arrested, and a raft of corruption charges linked to 1MDB, which he co-founded in 2009, followed.
Before his arrest, Najib told Reuters there was nothing improper about the seized luxury items or cash, which authorities had valued at up to $275 million.
“I didn’t benefit from 1MDB, because I believe that 1MDB was created to do something good for the country,” he said.
The eldest son of Malaysia’s second prime minister, Abdul Razak Hussein, Najib was groomed for high office from his political debut, aged 23.
Until recently, he was the youngest person elected to parliament. He was also one of the youngest to be appointed a federal deputy minister, and later the youngest to head his home state of Pahang as chief minister.
The smooth upward trajectory of the British-educated son of nobility culminated in 2009 when he succeeded Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who stepped down a year after a bruising election that cost their ruling coalition a two-thirds majority in parliament.
Najib struck a reformist tone, pushing for liberal economic policies and repealing colonial-era security laws in a bid to shed the perception of a government unwilling to brook dissent.
But the disenchantment of Malaysia’s ethnic minorities in a 2013 election prompted Najib to roll back his reform pledges in the face of anger over a perceived loss of long-held economic privileges by the majority ethnic Malays, who form the power base of his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party.
The majority Muslim Malays form 60% of a population of about 32 million, with the rest mostly made up of ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indians.
Just two years after the 2013 election, the first signs of scandal began to surface at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
Najib acted quickly to try to stop the fallout, but it was too late and voters, livid at the graft accusations, threw out his ruling coalition.
A swift crackdown followed for Najib and his family at the hands of his mentor-turned-foe, Mahathir Mohamad, the veteran politician who led a loose opposition pact to power that year.
Yet Najib remains popular in some quarters. His regular jabs at the opposition and lighthearted updates on Facebook have drawn more than 4 million followers, more than any other Malaysian politician.
“Last week my Facebook attracted 20 million engagements,” Najib said in an interview in March. “Normally I get about 9.5 million a week.”
Additional reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Ed Davies, Clarence Fernandez and Nick Macfie
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