KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysians watched live on Wednesday as Najib Razak headed to court to face charges linked to a corruption scandal, an extraordinary event in the swift downfall of the former prime minister since he lost an election less than two months ago.
Najib, 64, was charged with three counts of criminal breach of trust and one of abuse of power in connection with the scandal-plagued state fund 1MDB.
He has denied any wrongdoing and says the charges are politically motivated. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.
National television networks broadcast pictures of Najib’s convoy as it moved through morning rush-hour traffic to the court in the capital, Kuala Lumpur.
Online news portals posted live updates of the scene outside the court where scores of journalists and onlookers waited for Najib’s arrival.
Wearing a dark blue suit, Najib smiled and waved to the crowd as police escorted him into the court.
The charges were read out to Najib in a sessions court, before moving to the High Court where an official read out the charges again. Najib, standing and nodding occasionally, pleaded not guilty.
Three of his children - Ashman, Nooryana Najwa and Nazifuddin - watched the proceedings in the packed court.
Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, who is also being investigated in the 1MDB case, was also at the court.
Malaysians said the charging of Najib, the son of the country’s second prime minister, was the latest surprise since a May 9 election swept him from power.
“So, @NajibRazak becomes the first ever former Prime Minister to be arrested. Yet another piece of history written for #MalaysiaBaharu (New Malaysia),” said one Twitter user called Sheikh Shamir.
Fahmi Reza, one of several political satirists who faced fines, legal action and jail terms for mocking Najib, went to court to see Najib charged.
“I’m at KL Court today as a citizen who has been silenced, persecuted & sentenced to jail for speaking up against @NajibRazak,” Fahmi said on Twitter.
“I’m here to hear the corruption charges that is finally being brought against him.”
The 1MDB investigations have gripped the nation, with the help of a newly unshackled mainstream media that is closely tracking Najib’s downfall.
News of Najib’s arrest on Tuesday was splashed across the front pages of newspapers, something unimaginable just eight weeks ago.
Under his leadership, the Barisan Nasional coalition lost an election for the first time since it began governing in 1957 following Malaysia’s independence from Britain.
Days after he was sworn in as prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, a former premier who came out of retirement to oppose Najib, restarted investigations into 1MDB and barred Najib from leaving Malaysia.
Najib’s family homes have been searched in full public glare, with police seizing millions of dollars in luxury items.
Outside the court on Wednesday, about 100 Najib supporters held placards calling for his release.
“This is unfair ... They are trying to get him on whatever charge they can,” said Suhaila M. Zin, 43.
Some Najib supporters disrupted a news conference by Attorney General Tommy Thomas, creating a ruckus until police cleared them out.
Thomas spoke briefly in English to say he would take questions from reporters. He left as chants of “Melayu” resounded, a seeming insistence that he speak in the Malay language.
Thomas is the first non-Malay to hold the post of attorney general since 1963, and his appointment faced opposition from some groups representing the ethnic Malay majority.
After seven hours in court and being granted bail of 1 million ringgit ($247,000), Najib left looking relaxed. He even speaking briefly to reporters.
“Today, I have been officially charged. This is something I had expected, because that is the intent of the new government,” he said.
“I believe in my innocence and this is the best chance to clear my name,” he said, waving off questions with a smile.
Additional reporting by Emily Chow and John Geddie; Writing by A. Ananthalakshmi; Editing by Darren Schuettler