KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Just eight weeks after losing an election, former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak was charged on Wednesday with abuse of power and criminal breach of trust in an investigation of how billions of dollars went missing from a state fund.
Najib, who had been detained on Tuesday, pleaded not guilty, but the charges and his court appearance were the culmination of a swift and stunning downfall for a premier who led the country for nearly a decade.
“I believe in my innocence and this is the best chance to clear my name,” Najib told reporters outside the courtroom after being released on bail of 1 million ringgit ($247,000).
Crowds of journalists and onlookers jostled for a glance of Najib, and some backers of his UMNO party chanted and held up placards in support of a man whose father, Malaysia’s second prime minister, is held in high regard.
National television networks broadcast live images of Najib’s convoy moving through morning rush-hour traffic to the court in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, an extraordinary spectacle few could have imagined before the May 9 election upset.
Najib thwarted corruption allegations for three years after revelations in 2015 that hundreds of millions of dollars from troubled state fund 1MDB were diverted to his personal accounts.
But his life has unraveled since the election defeat by his one-time mentor and the country’s most seasoned politician, Mahathir Mohamad, who returned to the prime minister’s office he occupied from 1981 to 2003.
Mahathir reopened an investigation into the fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), and barred Najib from leaving the country. Wednesday’s charges fulfilled an election promise to prosecute Najib, whom he called a “thief” during the campaign.
Besides the abuse of power, Najib has been charged with three counts of criminal breach of trust, which carry prison sentences of up to 20 years. The abuse of power charge carries a fine of five times the “value of gratification”.
He was ordered to surrender his passports and the judge set the trial for Feb. 18 next year.
Wednesday’s charges relate to funds of about 42 million ringgit ($10.4 million) that allegedly went from SRC International, a former 1MDB unit, into Najib’s personal bank account.
This represents a small fraction of the $4.5 billion the U.S. Department of Justice has said was misappropriated from 1MDB, which is being investigated in at least six countries on suspicion of money laundering.
Malaysia’s attorney general indicated there could be more charges in the case as the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission continues its investigations.
SRC has been the initial focus of Malaysian investigators as all the suspicious transactions involving it went through Malaysian entities, unlike other 1MDB-related transactions that went through foreign banks and companies.
The judge imposed a temporary gag order to stop public discussion beyond the merits of the case. Najib’s lawyers have said their client has been dragged through a trial by the media.
Najib joined parliament at the age of 23 and attained the top job in 2009, setting up 1MDB shortly after, but his second term in office from 2013 was plagued by allegations about it.
Mahathir, who helped Najib’s political ascent before turning on him as the accusations surfaced, led a campaign to unseat him, appealing to voters’ disgust with a government apparently mired in corruption.
Mahathir told Reuters last month that embezzlement and bribery using government money were among the charges being considered against Najib, adding that his former protege was fully responsible for the 1MDB scandal.
Since Najib’s election loss, investigators have seized luxury handbags, jewelry and other items worth millions of dollars from properties linked to his family.
Najib must be held accountable, said Anwar Ibrahim, the prime-minister-in-waiting and former opposition leader.
“Because of the allegations against him regarding 1MDB, he must be held accountable in court,” Anwar told reporters in neighboring Indonesia.
In a pre-recorded message posted on Twitter after his arrest on Tuesday, Najib said he was not perfect and “not all the accusations against me and my family are true.”
Reporting by Rozanna Latiff and Joseph Sipalan; writing by John Geddie and A. Ananthalakshmi; Editing by John Chalmers and Clarence Fernandez