Malaysian ex-PM Najib's first 1MDB trial to proceed

Kuala Lumpur (AFP) –


Malaysian ex-leader Najib Razak's first trial linked to the 1MDB scandal will proceed after a judge ruled Monday prosecutors had made a sufficient case, boosting efforts to bring him to justice over the mammoth fraud.

Vast sums were plundered from sovereign wealth fund 1MDB in a multi-billion-dollar scam allegedly involving former prime minister Najib and his cronies, which has triggered investigations around the world.

His coalition was ousted at the polls last year after six decades in power largely due to the scandal, and he has since been arrested and hit with dozens of charges linked to the looting of the investment vehicle.

The 66-year-old went on trial for the first time in April over the controversy, in a case centring on the transfer of 42 million ringgit ($10.1 million) from a former 1MDB unit into his bank account. Najib denies any wrongdoing.

Prosecutors finished presenting their evidence in August, and on Monday High Court judge Mohamad Nazlan Mohamad Ghazali ruled the case was strong enough to go forward and Najib should enter his defence.

"The accused had enormous and overarching influence" over the 1MDB unit, SRC International, the judge told the court, adding the prosecution had established Najib has a case to answer for all seven charges he is facing.

"It was under the control of the accused from day one. The accused wielded considerable power."

- 'Emperor' of graft -

The alternative would have been to strike out the charges in the case -- although Najib is still facing several other cases linked to 1MDB, with his biggest trial over the scandal having opened in August.

Najib, who remains free on bail, was in court for the decision and hung his head as the ruling was read out. Such a ruling is usual in Malaysian court cases after prosecutors present their evidence.

The judge previously set dates in December for Najib to enter his defence if the prosecutors' case was deemed strong enough.

The decision will be a relief for Malaysia's government and 94-year-old Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who came to power partly on a pledge to get to the bottom of the 1MDB scandal and bring those involved to justice.

In their closing submissions last month, prosecutors argued that Najib acted like an "emperor" in overseeing massive graft at the former 1MDB unit.

His defence team, however, had said that the bulk of evidence does not lead to "any finding of culpability" on Najib's part.

Najib is facing four charges of corruption and three money-laundering counts in the trial.

Each charge of corruption carries a maximum jail term of 20 years, and each money-laundering count is punishable by a term of up to 15 years.

The amounts involved in Najib's first trial are small, however, compared to those in his second and most significant one -- which centres on allegations he illicitly obtained over $500 million from 1MDB.

US authorities, who are investigating the fund as money was allegedly laundered through the American financial system, believe $4.5 billion was looted from 1MDB.