Najib Razak, the former Malaysian Prime Minister, took to the witness stand on Tuesday to open his defence against seven charges of abuse of power, breach of trust and money laundering during his time in office.
Mr Najib is pleading not guilty to all charges, including the accusation that he illegally took $10.1 million from SRC International, a company linked to a multi-billion-dollar scandal at state fund 1 Malaysian Development Berhad (1MDB).
The former leader, who is defending himself at the high-profile criminal trial in Kuala Lumpur’s high court, has claimed that he is the victim of a political witchhunt after he lost the election to his former mentor and current Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad last year.
However, on November 11, rather than absolve him of the charges, the court said that he had “enormous and overarching influence” over the fund during a period when he was both prime minister and finance minister. The judge said it was clear he had acted for personal gains.
Tuesday’s trial began with an opening statement from Muhammad Shafeee Abdullah, the lead defence lawyer, who said that Mr Najib had not acted corruptly and had worked at all times in the best interests of Malaysia.
Mr Najib, dressed in a crisp blue suit, then entered the witness box to read out a 243-page statement. He explained the formation of 1MDB and argued that he had fallen prey a cunning fugitive financier, Low Taek Jho.
Mr Low has been identified by US investigators as the mastermind behind the audacious scandal which unfolded across several countries. He is wanted in both Malaysia and the US and is currently in hiding but has previously denied any wrongdoing through his lawyers.
The investigators believe more than $4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB and laundered through multiple bank accounts to finance Hollywood films and make luxury purchases, including a yacht, works of art and jewellery.
According to Mr Najib, 1 MDB was originally a sovereign wealth fund started by the northeastern Terengganu state, together with a Malaysian royal who Mr Low was advising.
When the fund ran into problems, he claimed the Cabinet “reluctantly” agreed take over in 2009 to save the king embarrassment and prevent an adverse impact on the country’s bond market.
Mr Najib alleged that Mr Low had been a “very influential figure” in the Middle East, where he found cohorts for the entire scheme.
He further claimed that he was not aware of company clauses giving him key power in SRC but that it wasn’t unusual in government-linked companies.
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His direct testimony will continue on Wednesday, and is expected to last until next week, after which, he will face a cross-examination by prosecutors.
If convicted in the case, the former prime minister could face between 15 and 20 years in jail.