Is Najib Razak getting a pardon for 1MDB-linked corruption? Malaysia waits with bated breath

Mystery surrounds the fate of Najib Razak, jailed for 12 years for corruption linked to Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal, as the government on Thursday refused once more to tell an angry and restless public if the disgraced former leader will have his sentence reduced – or even be granted a full pardon.
When Federal Territories Minister Zaliha Mustafa, who sits on the pardons board, was cornered by the media on Thursday morning, she declined to give a clear answer on the most talked about issue in Malaysia, telling reporters to “continue waiting” for an official announcement.

Fevered speculation of an imminent pardon or a significant reduction in the 70-year-old Najib’s sentence was stirred by revelations that the pardons board met with the country’s former king, Sultan Abdullah, on the last day of his reign on Monday to decide on the matter.

Malaysia’s former king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, looks on during an interview at the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur last month. Photo: Reuters

Under Malaysian law, the power to pardon lies with the monarch, on the advice of the pardons board appointed by him.

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was himself granted a full pardon by a previous king in 2018, allowing him to return to active politics after being released from prison following his incarceration in 2014 on sodomy charges.

When asked if the announcement would be coming sometime this week, Minister Zaliha said: “God willing, we hope so”.

Malaysia to rule on royal pardon for jailed ex-PM Najib over role in 1MDB scandal

Other ministers have played a similarly straight bat over the incendiary issue of Najib’s jail term, with Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail – who is in charge of prisons – saying that it was “discussed” informally in the cabinet meeting on Wednesday, but it was not his place to comment.

“We discussed it, but we understand that this is under the jurisdiction of the [pardons board],” he said after the cabinet meeting.

On the same day, communications minister and government spokesman Fahmi Fadzil told the media not to “jump the gun” and wait for an official announcement.

“If not, it may lead to various reactions, and, in my view, it is important to maintain professionalism when issuing statements,” he said at an unrelated press conference.


The legacy of Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal on politics and corruption-fighting

The legacy of Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal on politics and corruption-fighting

This came after local newspaper Utusan reported on Tuesday, citing unnamed sources, that Najib had been given a full pardon by the board – triggering a wave of anger among the Malaysian public, many of whom feel betrayed by the prospect of seeing the former leader walk free after serving just over a year in prison for corruption.

The newspaper later retracted the news and apologised.

Singapore’s CNA, meanwhile, reported that Najib’s sentence had been halved from 12 years to six – similarly quoting unnamed sources who are supposedly senior officials in the Malaysian government.

Reacting to a possible pardon, legal activist Lim Wei Jiet said such a move would irreversibly tarnish the country’s criminal justice system and Malaysia’s standing as a nation that upholds the rule of law.

The message is simple: it’s OK to steal, as long as you are from the political elite

Lim Wei Jiet, legal activist

“The message is simple: it’s OK to steal, as long as you are from the political elite,” Lim said.

Najib was convicted in 2020 of seven counts of corruption and abuse of power involving 42 million ringgit (US$8.9 million) funnelled through SRC International, a former unit of 1MDB. He was jailed in 2022 after exhausting all legal challenges.

The multibillion-dollar scandal at 1MDB, the state fund founded in 2009 just months after Najib became prime minister, was described by the US Department of Justice as the largest kleptocracy case it had ever dealt with.

It cast an international spotlight on corruption inside Malaysia’s political and business elites, with links to notorious names such as the hard-partying financier-turned-fugitive Jho Low, who funded the Leonardo Di Caprio movie The Wolf of Wall Street.

Jho Low and the Wolf of Wall Street: how Malaysian businessman ‘hooked up DiCaprio’

The scandal led to the spectacular downfall of Najib, the British-educated one-time political star, after his Umno party suffered its first-ever electoral loss in Malaysia’s 2018 elections.

Police and anti-corruption officers quickly raided premises linked to the former leader and his family, seizing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of luxury handbags, thousands of pieces of jewellery and watches and cash in 26 different currencies.

Najib, whose wife Rosmah Mansor faces separate corruption charges unrelated to 1MDB, has denied any wrongdoing saying he was a victim of a scheme marshalled by Jho Low and others. He still faces at least three other trials linked to 1MDB.

At least US$4.5 billion is believed to have been funnelled out of the fund, according to the US Department of Justice and Malaysian investigators.

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