Malaysia's top court ordered former Prime Minister Najib Razak to begin his final appeal Tuesday after rejecting his request to throw out his graft conviction and 12-year sentence over potential judicial bias.
Najib has sought to introduce new evidence that would spark a retrial on grounds that the high court judge who convicted him may be biased due to his previous job at a bank that provided financial services to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad state fund.
The five-member Federal Court bench unanimously dismissed the request, agreeing with prosecutors that the background of then-High Court Judge Mohamad Nazlan Mohamad Ghazali was public knowledge. Nazlan is now a judge in the Court of Appeals.
Chief Justice Maimun Tuan Mat said the court couldn't find any link between Nazlan's previous role at the bank and the charges against Najib that could lead to a real danger of bias. She also said some of the proposed additional evidence the defense is seeking was already available during trial and in any case, were irrelevant to the charges.
“We are not convinced that Justice Nazlan made his findings based on anything other than the evidence on record," she said. “To our mind, there is no miscarriage of justice" as Najib can still appeal to the top court, she added.
Najib would become Malaysia’s first former prime minister to be imprisoned if his appeal fails. Najib, 69, has reiterated his innocence and has been out on bail pending his appeals.
Following the court's decision, defense counsel Hisyam Teh Poh Teih sought for the appeal hearing to be postponed. Hisyam, who is part of a new defense team recently appointed by Najib, said the team needed more time to prepare for the hearing.
Najib was found guilty of abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering for illegally receiving $9.4 million from a former unit of 1MDB. The Federal Court is scheduled to hear his final appeal in the case until Aug. 26.
1MDB was a development fund Najib set up shortly after taking power in 2009. Investigators allege at least $4.5 billion was stolen from the fund and laundered by Najib’s associates.
The scandal sparked investigations in the U.S. and several other countries and caused the downfall of Najib’s government in 2018 elections. Najib faces a total of 42 charges in five separate trials linked to 1MDB, and his wife is also on trial for corruption.
Despite his graft conviction, Najib remains politically influential. His United Malays National Organization leads the current government after defections of lawmakers caused the collapse of the reformist government that won the 2018 polls.
Najib is still a lawmaker pending his appeal but he cannot contest if an early general election is called. National polls are not due until the second half of 2023, but there have been strong calls from UMNO leaders for early elections.