Former Malaysian leader Najib Razak took the stand to defend his conduct in the 1MDB scandal Tuesday, as the first of several trials linked to the multi-billion-dollar fraud entered a crucial stage.
Huge sums were stolen from sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, allegedly by the ex-prime minister and his cronies, and spent on everything from high-end real estate to artwork.
His coalition was ousted at the polls last year after six decades in power, largely due to public anger over 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 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 accounts. Najib denies any wrongdoing.
The High Court ruled the trial should proceed on the strength of the prosecution case, with Najib’s team now set to present his side of the story.
Defence proceedings began with the former leader giving testimony under oath. His performance may be key in determining whether he can persuade the judge of his innocence.
He will also face cross-examination from prosecutors and is expected to be on the witness stand for around four days.
Najib arrived at the court in a blue suit and held a brief Muslim prayer with supporters at the building’s steps.
“I am as prepared as I can be,” he told AFP.
He began his testimony reading from a 243-page statement, recalling his long career in politics and ministerial posts he held since 1978, including the post of finance minister.
Answering questions from his lawyer Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, Najib said he was not the architect of 1MDB, which was formed in 2009 after the government took over the Terengganu Investment Agency and renamed it.
Najib had said in a Facebook post last month that his testimony “will enable me to give a true picture of events and prove that I am not guilty” and “an opportunity to clear my name in court”.
He is facing four charges of corruption and three counts of money-laundering in the trial over former 1MDB subsidiary SRC International.
Prosecutors have argued that Najib wielded huge influence over the unit and knew that stolen money was being funnelled from it into his accounts.
But in an opening statement in court before Najib took the stand, his lawyer Shafee said they will prove that Najib “did not misappropriate funds… either directly or indirectly” and “did not act dishonestly”.
The amount transferred to his account “was done without his knowledge or involvement” as the transactions “were being manipulated by third parties without his knowledge and approval,” Shafee said.
“Ultimately, we will pray for an order that (Najib) be acquitted and discharged of all seven charges,” he said.
The case is one of several 1MDB-linked trials investigating Najib’s conduct. The biggest opened in August, centring on allegations he illicitly obtained over $500 million from the fund.
US authorities, who are also investigating the fraud as money was allegedly laundered through the American financial system, believe $4.5 billion was looted from the fund.