Malaysia’s former prime minister Najib Razak has been ordered to begin a 12-year prison sentence after he lost his final appeal against a conviction linked to the multibillion-dollar 1MDB scandal, one of the world’s biggest financial frauds.

A five-member federal court panel said it unanimously found that Najib’s appeal was “devoid of any merits”, seemingly sealing the stunning downfall of the 69-year-old, who has become Malaysia’s first former PM to be jailed.

Najib, who reportedly appeared shocked as the verdict was read in court, was later photographed being driven away in a black car. His daughter-in-law Nur Sharmila Shaheen told AFP the family had been informed that he was sent to Kajang prison, south of the capital, Kuala Lumpur.
James Chin, professor of Asian Studies University of Tasmania, said the verdict marked a victory for the Malaysian public and the judiciary. “Prior to this, a lot of people in Malaysia will tell you that when it comes to political cases, you can never be sure which way the wind blows in the courts. Now it is quite clear that the courts are quite impartial,” he said.

The court had shown it was “even willing to break the ultimate taboo in south-east Asia” by convicting a powerful political heavyweight.

Najib had denied any wrongdoing in relation to the scandal that engulfed 1MDB, or 1Malaysia Development Berhad, a state fund set up to promote development. Billions of dollars were estimated to have been siphoned from the fund.

The scandal brought down Najib’s government and prompted investigations around the world, including in Singapore, Switzerland and the US.

In July 2020, Najib was found guilty of breach of trust, abuse of power, and money laundering for illegally receiving about $10m £8.5m from SRC International, a former unit of state fund 1MDB. Najib, who had pleaded not guilty, was given a 12-year sentence and a 210m ringgit (£40m) fine.

Chief justice Maimun Tuan Mat, who upheld the verdict on Tuesday, said the defence was “so inherently inconsistent and incredible that it does not raise a reasonable doubt on the prosecution case”.

During his appeal, which began last week, Najib alleged that his right to a fair trial had been undermined. On Tuesday, he sought to remove the chief justice, Maimun Tuan Mat, from the case, stating that her husband had previously criticised him on social media and that this could lead to bias.

In his affidavit read out in court by his lawyer, Najib said comments made by Maimun’s husband were “highly disturbing” as they may have influenced her opinion of the case.

The court’s findings may be seen as “tainted with bias, and the public perception of the independence of the judiciary will be in doubt”, Najib said in his application.

Najib, who replaced his legal team only weeks before his appeal began, also claimed his right to a fair trial was at risk because the court had refused his requests to postpone hearings to allow his new representatives time to prepare.

The court also rejected his attempt to introduce new evidence that could have prompted a retrial on allegations of bias by the high court judge who sentenced him in 2020.

Najib faces five separate trials related to 1MDB. His wife, Rosmah Mansor, is also on trial on corruption charges.

Investigators have said about $4.5bn was stolen from 1MDB, and that more than $1bn went to accounts linked to Najib. US lawsuits allege stolen money was used by various recipients, including the fugitive businessman Jho Low, to fund lavish shopping sprees, buy real estate, a Picasso painting, a private jet, a superyacht, hotels and jewellery.

Had the court overturned the previous verdict, Najib, who remains popular within his Umno party, would have pushed to again become prime minister, said Chin. A conviction prevents him from standing, however, meaning his political career is, in the short term at least, over.

However, Chin added a loophole that may provide a path back to politics: “If you get a [royal] pardon, it means that your slate will be wiped clean”.