Malaysia’s Mahathir fears Najib would walk free if graft-tainted

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters): Malaysia’s veteran politician and opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad predicted on Tuesday that disgraced former prime minister Najib Razak would be released from jail if his graft-tainted ruling party wins an upcoming general election.

Najib began a 12-year jail term in August after being convicted in the first of several cases related to the looting of billions of dollars from state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

Malaysia is set to hold a general election in the coming weeks after Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob dissolved parliament on Monday, buckling to pressure from factions in the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) that remain loyal to Najib and others charged with corruption.

Speaking a day later, Mahathir warned that UMNO would rush to get Najib released from prison through a royal pardon as well as drop dozens of other corruption charges if it wins the election.

“Should they be able to win and form the government, that is the first objective, not about the welfare of the people,” Mahathir, who had two stints as prime minister, told a news conference.

Criminal prosecution of UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is facing 47 graft charges in a case unrelated to 1MDB, will also be dropped, Mahathir said.

Najib and Zahid have both pleaded not guilty, saying they are victims of a political vendetta.

They were both prosecuted, along with other party leaders, after UMNO lost the 2018 election for the first time in Malaysia’s history as voters punished the party for 1MDB and other corruption scandals.

Having led the country for 22 years until 2003, Mahathir came out of retirement to forge a coalition to defeat Najib, his former protege, but that alliance fell apart in 2020, ending Mahathir’s second stint as prime minister and allowing UMNO to make its way back into power.

Now aged 97, Mahathir said he will defend his parliamentary seat in the election, and that he was willing to work with anyone to defeat UMNO.

UMNO is hoping to win a big enough mandate in the upcoming polls to form the government on its own, without the coalition partners it had under Ismail’s administration.

Despite Najib’s claim of political vengeance, the far ranging 1MDB scandal has implicated financial institutions and high-ranking officials globally. At least six countries opened investigations.

Investigators have said some $4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB — co-founded by Najib during his first year as prime minister in 2009 — and that over $1 billion went to accounts linked to Najib.

The US Department of Justice has called it their biggest kleptocracy investigation.

Najib has said he was misled by 1MDB officials.

Other opposition leaders have also slammed UMNO for pushing for early elections at a time when the economy is slowing down.

“One of the explicit or implicit objectives of UMNO in the general election is to free Najib and the other protagonists of the 1MDB scandal from criminal liability,” Lim Kit Siang, a leader of the opposition Democratic Action Party, said in a statement.