Malaysians will have to wait a little longer for their trial of the century.
Disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak was due to appear in the dock Tuesday on multiple corruption charges related to the 1MDB financial scandal, but the country’s Court of Appeal issued a last-minute stay Monday afternoon, his lawyer Shafee Abdullah told CNN.
Najib’s defense team has filed multiple appeals over procedural issues in the run-up to the trial, and judges ruled that it should be delayed until one of them can be heard.
Tuesday’s trial was on just a handful of the many charges facing Najib over the billions of dollars allegedly embezzled from the 1MDB fund. Other trials are scheduled for later this year, and the entire legal process could last months, if not years.
The delay will be seen as something of a victory for Najib, who has consistently maintained his innocence. Since the prosecution began, he has attempted to paint it as a political vendetta against him, led by his former mentor Mahathir Mohamad, who turfed him out of office in a shock election victory in 2018.
A date has not been set for the trial to resume and Najib’s lawyer told CNN the appeal process could take weeks.
Speaking ahead of the Court of Appeals ruling, Tony Pua, a finance ministry official and longtime critic of Najib, told CNN the complexity of the scandal and the multiple cases against the former PM could work in his favor.
“He has done a fantastic job in keeping his hopes alive for a comeback,” Pua said. “His strategy is very obvious, it will take a while to jail him, so he probably hopes that before he gets jailed there could be a change of government.”
While Pua is confident of the current government’s ability to repeat its last year’s success in future elections, Najib has been in near constant campaign mode since he made bail on the corruption charges.
That has involved a reinvention of sorts and Najib – a scion of the Malaysian elite, whose wife Rosmah Mansor allegedly owned a multimillion-dollar pink diamond necklace, among other luxury goods – has portrayed himself as a man of the people.
In a video posted online which quickly went viral in Malaysia, Najib sang a Malay-language version of the 1970s song “Kiss and Say Goodbye,” with the lyrics changed to criticize Mahathir’s governing coalition.
“This is the saddest day in my life,” Najib says during the intro. “On May 9, 2018, I was ousted. All this while I fought relentlessly for the people whom I loved and are dear to me. But what can I do?”
He then accuses the opposition of “slander and revenge,” before the chorus lays into the government for leaving people’s hopes “shattered into dust.”
The video was originally uploaded to Najib’s Facebook page, where he has taken to posting regular criticisms and snarky comments about coalition politicians and government policies, as well as photos poking fun at himself.
But the charm campaign isn’t just online, and Najib has also toured the Malaysian island of Langkawi, meeting with locals and posing for selfies.
Pua laughed when asked about Najib’s new social media presence.
“It’s kind of surreal to see someone who brought down his party, who has been indicted in pretty much all media around the world, indicted in the US, indicted in Malaysia, to be out and about and to be able to make himself look like … an antihero or even hero among some segments of the population,” Pua said.
Delay benefits defense
Analysts were also skeptical about Najib’s new image. James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, said “support on social media does not translate into real political support.”
“Once people hear how much money was involved and how (Rosmah) misused the money, support will disappear,” he said.
Chin said that while he expected Najib would be found guilty on at least one of the charges, “he will not be going to jail anytime soon,” and he would appeal every step of the way.
“The earliest the entire process will finish will be sometime in 2020 or 2021,” Chin added. “The whole point is to remove Najib from Parliament, if he is found guilty he will lose his seat before the next general election,” which is due to take place before September 2023.
Ross Tapsell, director of the Malaysia Institute at the Australian National University, said that “the longer the trial takes and the longer Najib is able to parade around freely, the harder it is for the government to justify to the masses that the level of corruption was as high and as widespread as they said it was during the election campaign.”
“Najib’s PR social media-driven strategy highlights how free he continues to be (even if he can’t leave the country), suggesting the charges were overstated, but that is not going to win over everyone,” Tapsell added. “People still remember the luxury handbags and bags of cash seized from their apartment immediately after the election.”