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Former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak has been convicted of crimes involving the multibillion-dollar looting of a state investment fund that brought down his government in a shocking election ousting two years ago.
Najib, who was calm and stony-faced as he became the first Malaysian leader to be convicted, has vowed to appeal against the verdict that could bring many years in prison.
The ruling in the first of his five corruption trials came five months after Najib’s Malay party returned to government as the biggest bloc in an alliance that took power from the reformist government that ousted Najib’s in 2018.
Analysts said the ruling would bolster the prosecution’s case in Najib’s other trials and would signal to the business community that Malaysia’s legal system has strength in tackling international financial crimes.
“I find the accused guilty and convict the accused of all seven charges,” Judge Mohamad Nazlan Ghazali said after spending two hours to read out an elaborate ruling.
Some of Najib’s supporters waiting outside the courthouse cried when they learned of the verdict.
Najib, 67, faces between 15 and 20 years plus hefty fines for each of the seven charges and has vowed to fight to the end.
He has said he was misled by rogue bankers and the case against him is political.
“I want justice. I want to clear my name,” he wrote on Facebook.
“After this, we will go to the Court of Appeal. I am ready.”
A scion of one of Malaysia’s most prominent political families, he faces 42 charges in five separate trials and could face years in prison.
Najib’s lawyers were asking the judge to delay their arguments on sentencing until next week.
The current trial involved a charge of abuse of power, three charges of criminal breach of trust and three money laundering charges involving the transfer of 42 million ringgit (£7.6 million) from SRC International, a former 1MDB unit, into Najib’s bank accounts.
The judge agreed with prosecutors that Najib had “overarching control” of SRC, failed to rebut the allegations against him and that prosecutors had established beyond reasonable doubt that Najib misappropriated money for his own use.
“The conviction would serve as a solid foundation for the prosecution in ensuing 1MDB-related trials,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with Singapore’s Institute of International Affairs.
He said the ruling also would strengthen the credibility of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, even though he now relies on Najib’s party for support.
Mr Muhyiddin was fired as Najib’s deputy five years ago to the date of Tuesday’s verdict for speaking out on the 1MDB scandal.
Najib’s party is the biggest bloc in the current Malay nationalist alliance that has governed since March with a shaky, wafer-thin majority in parliament.
The ruling was “absolutely” good for Malaysia, said analyst Bridget Welsh, honorary research associate with University of Nottingham Malaysia.
“I think that there is a sense of euphoria among the citizens that justice is being served, among the majority of Malaysians,” Ms Welsh said.
“Keep in mind that majority of Malaysians voted (in 2018) for political change, and the 1MDB case was a catalyst in that. The 1MDB case damaged Malaysia’s reputation, and I think today worked towards restoring that.”
Najib is a political scion whose father and uncle were Malaysia’s second and third prime ministers.
Shortly after he took office in 2009, he set up 1MDB to ostensibly accelerate Malaysia’s economic development.
But the fund accumulated billions in debt, and US investigators allege that at least 4.5 billion dollars (£3.5 billion) was stolen from it and laundered by Najib’s associates to finance Hollywood films and buy hotels, a luxury yacht, artwork, jewellery and other extravagances.
More than 700 million dollars (£544 million) from the fund allegedly landed in Najib’s bank accounts.
During the trial, Najib was accused of using his position to receive a bribe for approving a government guarantee for billions in loans to SRC, committing criminal breach of trust and accepting proceeds from unlawful activities.
Evidence showed a complex trail of ill-gotten money paid for his home renovation, credit card purchases including a Chanel watch bought in Hawaii as a birthday gift for his wife, and disbursements to political parties.
The judge said the defence’s argument that Najib, as premier, was duped by rogue bankers led by Malaysian fugitive financier Low Taek Jho was “too far-fetched” as the two had a close relationship.
Investigators have identified Low as the mastermind behind the looting of 1MDB and he remains at large.
Najib testified he assumed the money was part of an Arab donation arranged by Low as a guise to keep Najib from being suspicious of his plundering of the 1MDB fund.
The judge debunked that argument in the guilty verdict, finding it an “elaborate but weak fabrication”.
Najib’s second and third trials involving some of the remaining charges are ongoing. His wife and several officials from his party and previous government have also been charged with graft related to 1MDB corruption.
“People should not really be celebrating now… we know in Malaysia, many of these politically charged cases, once they get to the appeals court, they get reversed,” said James Chin, professor of Asian studies at Australia’s University of Tasmania.
“So the fact that we have today’s guilty verdict doesn’t mean things will change. Najib will still remain an MP and we have to wait for the appeal court system,” Prof Chin added.