For the first time ever, a former Malaysian prime minister will go on trial on criminal charges for corruption-related offenses and abuse of power. Najib Razak, 64, pleaded not guilty to the charges in the High Court on July 4. Each offense carries a maximum penalty of 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine. He was granted bail of 1 million ringgit (US$247,000). High Court Judge Sophian Abdul Razak ordered the accused to surrender his passport. Under Malaysian law, the penalty for criminal breach of trust also involves caning but Najib escapes this as caning applies only to those aged below 50 years. Najib has long been accused of siphoning US$700 million from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state fund
, which he set up. His arrest on July 3 was made in connection with SRC International Sdn Bhd, according to a statement from the task force set up to investigate the disappearance of billions of dollars from the state fund. Najib was detained overnight at the headquarters of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission in Putrajaya, state news agency Bernama reported. Authorities had earlier banned him from leaving the country. In a video posting on his Twitter account last night, Najib apologized to the nation while saying not all of the accusations against him were true and that he would defend himself. "I accept that today is the day my family and I face the world’s tribulation," the posting said. The arrest is the latest chapter in a stunning downfall for the son of former prime minister Abdul Razak. He first joined parliament at the age of 23 and became prime minister in 2009. The 1MDB scandal stimulated the opposition led by his former mentor Mahathir Mohamad, who at 92 rallied a diverse opposition alliance
to oust the long-ruling, Najib-led Barisan Nasional coalition government from office. In 2016, a parliamentary committee identified at least US$4.2 billion in irregular transactions by the fund. The U.S. Department of Justice, which also launched an ongoing investigation, said some cash was used to purchase a yacht, luxury homes, artwork, and stakes in several Hollywood films including The Wolf of Wall Street
. The scandal has taken a toll on the Malaysian stock market and the value of the ringgit since the disclosure that the country's debts totaled over 1 trillion ringgit, mainly due to the state fund's liabilities. Malaysia’s police said last month that they had seized about US$273 million of items in raids linked to Najib. They included cash, designer handbags, watches, jewellery and more than 200 pairs of designer sunglasses. Najib’s supporters have rallied to his defense. The women’s wing of Najib’s party, the United Malays National Organisation
better known as UMNO, called for a "transparent and fair" trial and said its members would hold special prayers for him. The party's youth chief, Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki, said Najib ought not be shamed unless he is proven guilty. "Let the court conduct the trial fairly and transparently, we hope he is given justice," Bernama quoted him as saying.
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The trial could have an outsized impact on Malaysia, where UMNO remains a force in the Malay heartland. If Najib is convicted and either resigns or is expelled by his party, it will usher in the rise of new political landscape and dynamic. The case is also a high-profile test of the ability of Malaysian prosecutors to go after elected officials for bribery.