Former Malaysian leader Najib Razak will take the stand to defend his conduct in the 1MDB scandal Tuesday, as the first of several trials linked to the multi-billion-dollar fraud enters a crucial stage.
Huge sums were stolen from sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, allegedly by the ex-prime minister and his cronies, and spent on everything from high-end real estate to artwork.
His coalition was ousted at the polls last year after six decades in power, largely due to public anger over the scandal, and he has since been arrested and hit with dozens of charges linked to the looting of the investment vehicle.
The 66-year-old went on trial in April over the controversy, in a case centring on the transfer of 42 million ringgit ($10.1 million) from a former 1MDB unit into his bank accounts. Najib denies any wrongdoing.
The High Court ruled the trial should proceed on the strength of the prosecution case, with Najib’s team now set to present his side of the story.
Defence proceedings will begin with the blue-blooded former leader giving testimony under oath, and his performance may be key in determining whether he can persuade the judge of his innocence.
He will also face cross-examination from prosecutors and is expected to be on the witness stand for around four days.
Najib said his testimony “will enable me to give a true picture of events and prove that I am not guilty.
“This is an opportunity to clear my name in court,” he wrote in a Facebook post after last month’s ruling.
He is facing four charges of corruption and three counts of money-laundering in the trial over former 1MDB subsidiary SRC International.
Prosecutors have argued that Najib wielded huge influence over the unit and knew that stolen money was being funnelled from it into his accounts.
Najib did not have to give testimony under oath, and could have opted instead to give a statement from the dock without being cross-examined, or to remain silent.
James Chin, a Malaysia expert from the University of Tasmania, said the move was a “risky strategy — it can go either way”.
“He is a good performer, he is charming, but the judge may not buy it,” he added.
The case is one of several 1MDB-linked trials investigating Najib’s conduct. The biggest opened in August, centring on allegations he illicitly obtained over $500 million from the fund.
US authorities, who are also investigating the fraud as money was allegedly laundered through the American financial system, believe $4.5 billion was looted from the fund.