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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 August 2018

Malaysian former PM Najib faces new money laundering charges

Najib's life of luxury symbolised the rot in an elite that had ruled the country since independence

Malaysia's former prime minister Najib Razak waves as he leaves court after pleading not guilty in a multi-billion-dollar financial case. AFP
Malaysia's former prime minister Najib Razak waves as he leaves court after pleading not guilty in a multi-billion-dollar financial case. AFP

Malaysia's former prime minister Najib Razak was hit with new charges on Wednesday linked to a multi billion dollar financial scandal that contributed to his shock election defeat in May.

Appearing at a court in Kuala Lumpur, Mr Najib was charged with three counts of money laundering over claims he pocketed 42 million ringgit (Dh37.9m), and pleaded not guilty. He faces up to 15 years in jail for each charge.

These are in addition to the charges he faced last month after he was arrested — three for criminal breach of trust and a separate count that he abused his position to take the money. He faces up to 20 years in jail for each of those charges, which he has also denied.

Malaysia's new government is investigating allegations that billions of dollars were looted from state fund 1MDB, which was set up and overseen by Mr Najib, in an audacious fraud that spanned the globe.

Allegations of massive corruption were a major factor behind the electoral earthquake in May that toppled Mr Najib's long-ruling coalition and ushered in a reformist alliance headed by his 93-year-old former mentor Mahathir Mohamad.

In a packed courtroom, the three new charges were read out to Mr Najib. Asked if he understood them, Mr Najib said: "I understand."

His case was transferred to another court, where he entered not guilty pleas, meaning he will stand trial.

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The new charges allege 42 million ringgit stemming from illegal activities was transferred to a bank account between December 2014 and February 2015.

All the charges relate to SRC International, an energy company that was originally a subsidiary of 1MDB. According to an investigation by The Wall Street Journal, about $10m originating from SRC was transferred to Mr Najib's personal bank accounts.

Real estate, artworks

This is just a fraction of the $681m that was mysteriously transferred to Mr Najib's personal bank accounts several years ago, sparking uproar in Malaysia. The attorney general at the time cleared Mr Najib of wrongdoing, and said that the money had been a donation from the Saudi royal family.

Mr Najib, who has consistently denied any wrongdoing, and his allies are accused of plundering billions of dollars from 1MDB to buy everything from US real estate to artworks.

The US Department of Justice, which is seeking to recover items allegedly bought with stolen 1MDB cash in America, estimates that $4.5bn in total was looted from the fund.

After Mr Najib's election defeat, police seized a vast trove of items – including expensive handbags and jewellery — from properties linked to him with an estimated value of up to $273m.

Investigations into 1MDB have been moving swiftly. On Tuesday, a luxury yacht allegedly paid for with about $250m stolen from 1MDB arrived outside Kuala Lumpur after being handed over by Indonesian authorities, who impounded it following a request for the US Department of Justice.

The 90-metre Equanimity, with a pool and helicopter landing pad, was allegedly bought by playboy financier Jho Low, a friend of Mr Najib's family, who was said to exert great influence over 1MDB.

Mr Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor led a life of luxury, allegedly funded by stolen public money, that came to symbolise the rot in an elite that had ruled the country uninterrupted since Malaysia's independence from Britain in 1957.

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