Hermès Bags and Millions in Cash: The Fall of Malaysia’s Najib Razak

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia —The former prime minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, arrived in a black sport utility vehicle and was taken into the courthouse through a back door. Dozens of prison guards and police officers, some heavily armed, escorted him into a fifth-floor courtroom this month for his second trial on corruption charges.

Mr. Najib, the pampered son of the country’s second prime minister, Abdul Razak Hussein, had once been seen as politically untouchable. Before Donald J. Trump became president of the United States, he called Mr. Najib “my favorite prime minister.”

But the law finally caught up with the Malaysian scion. Last month, Mr. Najib began serving a 12-year sentence for pocketing millions of dollars in government funds. His downfall was brought on by his own brazen behavior and personal mantra: “cash is king.” While in power, he siphoned hundreds of millions of dollars from a government fund to pay for election campaigns and finance his lavish lifestyle.

Mr. Najib’s free-spending wife, Rosmah Mansor, notorious for her extravagant jewelry and Hermès handbags, is headed to prison, too. She was handed a 10-year sentence this month for soliciting and receiving bribes and ordered to pay an extraordinary $216 million fine.

In Malaysia, where officials have long engaged in unbridled theft and many voters have become disillusioned by the rampant corruption, the judiciary was praised for standing firm in its judgment against the famous couple and reaffirming the principle of the rule of law.

“No one expected this to happen in Southeast Asia,” said James Chin, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Tasmania and an expert on Malaysian politics. “The feeling of impunity has always been there. When you get to the No. 1 position, you feel that you can do anything and that you can get away with anything.”

Rosmah Mansor, Mr. Najib’s wife, after she was found guilty earlier this month of soliciting and receiving bribes.Credit…Hasnoor Hussain/Reuters

When voters cast Mr. Najib out of office in 2018 — the first time that his political party, the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, had lost in national elections — the new government filed more than 40 criminal charges against him. At Mr. Najib’s trial and on appeal, all nine judges who have heard his case ruled that he was guilty. He faces four more trials and many more trips from his prison cell to the courthouse.

“The whole world knows that Najib committed many crimes,” said a former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamed, whose coalition defeated Mr. Najib and initiated the criminal charges against him in 2018. “We worried that the courts might also be influenced by Najib, but apparently they remain very independent.”

A U.S. Justice Department investigation found in 2016 that $731 million was transferred to Mr. Najib’s bank accounts from the government investment fund he oversaw, 1 Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB. At least $4.5 billion from the fund went missing. Former aides have said that Mr. Najib was driven by the need to finance his re-election campaigns. Much of the money has yet to be recovered.

“In order to convince people to support him, he had to steal money,” Mr. Mahathir said. “The people are very happy that he has finally been jailed.”

Despite the magnitude of the charges against him, Mr. Najib’s supporters hope he can make a comeback, get out of prison and revive his political career. For that to happen, Mr. Najib would need a pardon from Malaysia’s king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah.

Donald J. Trump, then the president, meeting with Mr. Najib in 2017. At one point, Mr. Najib had hope that Mr. Trump could help make the 1MDB scandal go away.Credit…Evan Vucci/Associated Press

After entering prison, he filed a petition requesting a sweeping pardon that would clear him of his conviction and all the remaining charges against him. Filing the petition allowed him to keep his seat in Parliament while his request is under consideration.

UMNO retains considerable support among ethnic Malays, who benefited during Mr. Najib’s nine-year rule. The current prime minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, an ally of Mr. Najib, is under pressure from UMNO to call elections for as soon as November. A victory for the party could strengthen Mr. Najib’s chances of an early release.

Balding and bespectacled, Mr. Najib, 69, projects a kindly, fatherly image to his large social media following. His wife, Ms. Rosmah, 70, is widely perceived as a modern Lady Macbeth who pushed her husband to steal government funds to finance her international shopping sprees.

She owns a $27.3 million pink diamond pendant that was purchased with money from the 1MDB investment fund, according to the police. When officers raided the couple’s properties in 2018, they carted away $273 million in cash and luxury goods, including 567 handbags, 423 watches and 14 tiaras.

“Najib and Rosmah audaciously co-ruled Malaysia in a way that plundered the nation,” said Liew Chin Tong, a former deputy defense minister.

At one point, Mr. Najib had hoped that Mr. Trump could help make the 1MDB scandal go away. The relationship between Mr. Trump and Mr. Najib goes back to at least 2014, when they golfed together at Mr. Trump’s Bedminster club in New Jersey.

A luxury yacht that Jho Low bought with money from the 1MDB fund he helped establish.Credit…Lai Seng Sin/Reuters

After Mr. Trump’s election, one of his top fund-raisers, the businessman Elliott Broidy, accepted $9 million from the fugitive Malaysian financier Jho Low, a friend of Ms. Rosmah’s son from her first marriage, Riza Aziz. Mr. Low was a central player in establishing the 1MDB fund and is now believed to be hiding in China.

The money was meant, in part, to lobby the Trump administration to drop the investigation into the missing 1MDB money. Mr. Broidy succeeded in arranging for Mr. Najib to visit Mr. Trump at the White House in 2017, but there is no indication that the president sought to help him.

Mr. Broidy pleaded guilty in 2020 to conspiring to violate foreign lobbying laws. Mr. Trump pardoned him just before leaving office.

Mr. Najib was convicted in 2020 on seven counts of money laundering, criminal breach of trust and abuse of power for illegally receiving transfers of $9.8 million from SRC International, a former unit of the investment fund commonly known as 1MDB.

Malaysia’s highest court upheld Mr. Najib’s convictions on Aug. 23, and he was taken directly to prison. His latest trial is being held in the same courtroom and before the same judge who sentenced his wife. Since entering prison, Mr. Najib has made several trips to the hospital for treatment of high blood pressure.

Ms. Rosmah, who is free while she appeals her conviction, came to court earlier this month to watch her husband’s trial on charges of tampering with a 1MDB audit. Outside court, she declined to speak with The New York Times.

Ms. Rosmah in New York in 2014. She is widely perceived as a modern Lady MacBeth who pushed her husband to steal government funds to finance her international shopping sprees.Credit…Michael Appleton for The New York Times

At Ms. Rosmah’s trial, the prosecution argued that she wielded significant influence over her husband because of her “overbearing” nature. In his verdict, Judge Mohamad Zaini Mazlan agreed.

“It is apparent that the accused dominates Najib,” he concluded. “She has control over him. She had no business interfering in Najib’s duties or the government’s affairs, but she did.”

He found that Ms. Rosmah solicited $42 million in bribes from a solar power company, Jepak Holdings, which was seeking approval of a $279 million contract to provide energy for rural schools.

The $42 million payment to Ms. Rosmah was to be a 15 percent commission for securing the project’s approval. She received two cash deliveries totaling about $1.5 million.

A former aide to Ms. Rosmah testified that he solicited the bribes from the company on her behalf. A company official testified that he put the cash in bags and took it to her residences.

Some government officials questioned the company’s ability to carry out the project, but Mr. Najib directed them to bypass normal procedures and negotiate the contract, the court found.

Taking the stand last week, Ms. Rosmah denied the charges and claimed that she was framed. But the judge found her guilty on one count of soliciting bribes and two counts of receiving bribes. He sentenced her to 10 years on each count, with the sentences to run concurrently.

She still faces 17 charges of money laundering and tax evasion.

At her sentencing, she tearfully pleaded for leniency. She said she hadn’t influenced her husband or ever taken money meant for the poor. And like Mr. Najib, she cast herself as a person wrongly caught up in the legal system. “I am a victim of all this,” she said. “You have done it to my husband and you want my family to suffer.”

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