Former Malaysian leader Najib Razak’s highly anticipated corruption case, scheduled to begin hearings today (February 12), was postponed after his lawyers filed a last-ditch bid to stay what is being likened to the nation’s trial of the century.

Harvinderjit Singh, one of Najib’s lawyers, told reporters on February 11 that the Court of Appeal had agreed to postpone the trial until an appeal is heard on a court jurisdiction issue. No new date for the trial or the appeal has been set.

Attorney General Tommy Thomas had earlier argued that the stay application should be rejected because Najib’s case is of public interest. Justice Ahmadi Haji Asnawi nonetheless granted the stay application, but called for the appeal process to be expedited.

When the trial finally begins, it will be the first of several criminal proceedings against the former premier over various corruption charges linked to a globe-spanning financial scandal that saw billions of dollars stolen from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state development fund, some of which was traced to his bank accounts.

For the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition, which took office nine months ago on a corruption-busting ticket, Najib’s trial represents the fulfillment of a key election promise to address and resolve a scandal that has tarnished Malaysia’s international standing and saddled the nation with debt.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who was previously Najib’s political mentor, opened a domestic probe into 1MDB as one of his first acts as premier. His government has since sought to restore confidence in the economy through anti-corruption initiatives that have seen charges brought against former top officials as well as Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor.

Former Malaysian PM Najib Razak, seen here with his wife Rosmah Mansor, has been accused of pilfering a vast sum from the 1MDB development fund before his shock poll defeat in May. Photo: Reuters/ Athit Perawongmetha
Former Malaysian PM Najib Razak and his wife Rosmah Mansor in a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

Najib, 65, has appeared before the court six times and has been arrested on four separate occasions since last May’s election upset ended his scandal-plagued nine-year premiership. Police raids into his properties in June saw cash, designer handbags, luxury watches and jewelry worth US$273 million seized, the single largest haul in Malaysian history.

He faces 42 charges in total ranging from corruption and money laundering to abuse of power, taking illegal bribes and criminal breach of trust. Najib, who has pleaded not guilty to all charges, could spend the rest of his life behind bars if convicted and sentenced to consecutive maximum prison terms for only a handful of the charges leveled against him.

The former premier has appeared nonchalant in court despite his grave legal troubles and remains publicly defiant, likening graft charges against him to “political vengeance” brought by Mahathir’s government. Confident of his innocence, Najib previously claimed a trial would be the “best chance” for him to clear his name.

Some would then question why his defense team opted for an eleventh-hour application to stay the proceedings. Haniff Khatri Abdulla, a lawyer who had previously acted as Mahathir’s legal counsel, chalked the matter up to various missteps by the Attorney General’s Chambers’ prosecution team.

On January 28, the prosecution brought three additional money-laundering charges against Najib pertaining to dealings at SRC International, a former subsidiary of 1MDB which pursued overseas investments in energy resources. An anti-graft probe last year uncovered $10.6 million in suspicious transactions from the firm to Najib’s personal bank account.

Though the sum involves a fraction of the total purportedly siphoned from 1MDB, SRC was the initial focus of Malaysian investigators because suspicious transactions involving the firm were channeled through Malaysian entities, unlike other 1MDB-related transactions involving foreign banks and overseas shell companies.

The now-postponed trial was set to hear seven SRC-related charges slapped on Najib in July and August last year, though Haniff believes the prosecution erred by bringing three new charges 15 days before the trial only to withdraw them on procedural grounds in a bid to have them tied together with related charges.

“The question is why the need to add any more charges on SRC International when the priority, in terms of justice, is for at least one of the cases to go to trial as scheduled on February 12, as desired by so many who have waited for the criminal trial,” claimed the lawyer, who also faulted the prosecution’s last-minute bid to transfer charges to the High Court, which enjoys wider jurisdiction.

“Malaysians have a right to demand that the prosecution provides a reasonable explanation for its carelessness,” he said, referring to Thomas’ decision to withdraw a certificate of transfer and request that the judge instead use discretionary powers to transfer the case, a move that became a point of contention and basis of Najib’s appeal.

A construction worker talks on the phone in front of a 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) billboard at the Tun Razak Exchange development in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 3, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Olivia Harris
A construction worker in front of a 1Malaysia Development Berhad billboard at the Tun Razak Exchange development in Kuala Lumpur, February 3, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Olivia Harris

The decision to halt proceedings is a setback for the Attorney General’s Chambers, which also found itself in hot water after the circulation of a leaked internal memo written by Solicitor General III Mohamad Hanafiah Zakaria that implied political bias and raised questions about the independence of Malaysia’s public prosecutor.

The memo conveyed a government directive instructing other deputy public prosecutors to object to postponements or delays of cases linked to the former “kleptocratic government,” prompting lawyers and other parties to accuse the Attorney General’s Chambers of being biased against Najib’s previous Barisan Nasional-led (BN) administration.

Hanafiah – who is responsible for litigation, including prosecution and trials, and mandated to assist the attorney general – defended the memo’s directive, saying that his office is “part of the machinery of the federal government and being part of it, we receive direction and instruction from the government.”

Ramkarpal Singh, a lawyer and parliamentarian with the ruling coalition, called on Hanafiah to resign or be removed for flouting the judiciary’s independence. “Hanafiah has forgotten that the AG is independent and prosecutes according to evidence and never is directed, whether by the government or otherwise,” he told reporters.

Some may count the Attorney General’s Chambers’ handling of Najib’s case as the latest blunder of an increasingly gaffe-prone administration, pushing back a key legal proceeding that analysts believe would have relieved pressure on Harapan amid rising frustration with the pace of change.

Malaysia's Attorney-General Tommy Thomas (C) speaks to the media after former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak appeared before a judge at the Duta court complex in Kuala Lumpur on July 4, 2018. - Najib was formally charged on July 4 with corruption linked to a multi-billion dollar financial scandal that contributed to his shock election defeat less than two months ago. (Photo by MOHD RASFAN / AFP)
Malaysia’s Attorney General Tommy Thomas (C) speaks to the media, July 4, 2018. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

Analysts, however, note that graft cases involving high-ranking officials are often complicated and lengthy.

“I think Malaysians are in for a shock as the system will not send Najib or Rosmah to jail this year. Assuming they are found guilty, then the appeals start. So the earliest the entire process will finish will be sometime in 2020 or 2021,” James Chin, political analyst and director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, told Asia Times.

“The stakes are high for both Harapan and UMNO,” says Chin, referring to the United Malays National Organization party formerly led by Najib. “Harapan was voted in, in part, to clean up corruption. If they cannot get Najib, Harapan will have a big problem in the next general election,” he said, adding that Najib could attempt a political comeback.

Najib, who is an elected parliamentarian, has remained politically active, campaigning for BN in a recent by-election and skillfully using social media to raise bread-and-butter issues while criticizing the Harapan government’s economic management.

Despite being widely disliked while in office, his popularity has grown since taking on the role of opposition leader. But not everyone is convinced of Najib’s ability to mount a political comeback.

“Sympathy – if not pity – for Najib [has] almost definitely increased. Once he is sentenced and jailed, he will be out of the equation and others will take his place within UMNO. Politics abhor a vacuum,” says Ooi Kee Beng, executive director of the Penang Institute, a think tank.

Prosecutors are expected to call dozens of witnesses, including former SRC International director Suboh Md Yassin, when Najib’s trial eventually opens. Proceedings were initially slated to run from February 12-24 and March 4-29. Given the case’s byzantine-like complexity, Malaysians are not likely to see a catharsis to the legal drama any time soon.