This Week in Asia

Najib Razak charged with money laundering as 1MDB case deepens

Legal pressures on Malaysia's disgraced former leader Najib Razak deepened sharply on Wednesday as prosecutors brought fresh charges against him for his alleged links to the multibillion-dollar financial scandal at the 1MDB state fund.

Already facing four criminal charges over the case, Najib, 65, was charged in the Kuala Lumpur High Court Complex under an anti-money-laundering act that the ex-prime minister had toughened with stiffer penalties in 2014.

Dressed in a dark blue suit and wearing a calm demeanour, Najib pleaded not guilty to three counts of money laundering. The former premier, currently out on bail for the first tranche of charges, did not have to post a fresh bond.

High Court Judge Mohamad Nazlan Ghazali said trial dates will be set on Friday.

Najib stands accused of receiving proceeds totalling 42 million ringgit (US$10 million) from "unlawful activities" on three occasions, according to the new charge sheets.

Malaysia's former prime minister Najib Razak arrives at the court complex in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AFP

Online, Malaysians displayed their continued astonishment at the sight of their former prime minister appearing in court for an arraignment for the second time in two months. The event was beamed live on Facebook by news outlets.

Najib's latest money laundering charges each carry a maximum sentence of 15 years in jail and a fine.

The four charges brought against him in July - three counts of criminal breach of trust and one count of abuse of power - each carry a maximum 20-year jail sentence.

All the charges are linked to SRC International, a former subsidiary of the 1MDB state fund founded by Najib.

Some US$4.5 billion is alleged to have been misappropriated from the fund during Najib's nine-year tenure as prime minister.

The latest development comes just a day short of the three-month mark of the former leader's defeat at the May 9 general election by his one-time mentor Mahathir Mohamad.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has been swift to probe his predecessor's alleged involvement in the 1MDB scandal. Photo: Xinhua

Since coming to power, 93-year-old Mahathir's government has moved at a swift pace to investigate Najib's alleged involvement in the 1MDB scandal, roping in help from authorities in various countries including the United States, Singapore and Switzerland.

Najib denies any wrongdoing, and has accused Mahathir of waging a campaign of "political revenge" against him following the election result.

Mahathir in turn has said due process is being followed by authorities probing the case.

EQUANIMITY SEIZURE

Najib's latest appearance in court follows another major development in the new government's pursuit of assets that are believed to be linked to the 1MDB scandal - its official seizure of a US$250 million super yacht.

The Cayman Island-flagged vessel Equanimity is alleged by US prosecutors to have been bought by Malaysian businessman Low Taek Jho or "Jho Low".

Malaysian businessman Jho Low with Gigi Hadid at a ball in New York in 2014. Photo: AFP

The yacht was first seized by Indonesian authorities in February, and was handed over to Malaysia on Monday.

US prosecutors say it is among some US$1.7 billion of assets bought with looted 1MDB funds.

Low is a fugitive, with arrest warrants for him in Singapore and Malaysia over his alleged links to the 1MDB scandal.

In a statement after Monday's seizure, Low said through his US-based lawyer that the handover of the vessel was an "illegal act".

The Wall Street Journal - which has tracked the 1MDB scandal closely since the scandal became public in 2015 - last week quoted sources as saying Low was now living in Thailand and China.

Like Najib, Low denies any wrongdoing.

While he has said he is ready to help with ongoing investigations, he has given no indication as to why he has yet to return to Malaysia for that purpose.

Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng meanwhile has said the yacht is likely to be sold "so that at least the people of Malaysia can get something back".

The Equanimity - clad in marble and gold leaf, and fitted with a swimming pool, cinema, spa and helipad - has been used by Mahathir and his allies to illustrate to the public the scale of decadence they claim was funded by taxpayer dollars plundered during the Najib era.

Najib, asked about the yacht's seizure, told reporters: "I have no knowledge of it. I have not been on board. I did not know about it until it came out in the press."

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2018. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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