KUALA LUMPUR: File photo taken on August 19, 2019 shows Malaysia's former prime minister Najib Razak arriving at the Kuala Lumpur High Court for his trial over 1MDB corruption allegations in Kuala Lumpur. – AFP

PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia: Former Malaysian leader Najib Razak lost his appeal against a corruption conviction and 12-year jail term yesterday, with the judge branding his actions a "national embarrassment" but allowing him to remain free. The 68-year-old was found guilty on all counts last year in the first of several trials he is facing related to the looting of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) sovereign wealth fund. Najib and his cronies were accused of stealing billions of dollars from the investment vehicle, with the allegations contributing to his long-ruling coalition's ejection from power in 2018. The former prime minister's first trial was related to the transfer of 42 million ringgit ($9.9 million) from a former 1MDB unit to his bank accounts.

Najib-who has remained free on bail-denies wrongdoing, but the Court of Appeal upheld his conviction on charges including money-laundering and abuse of power. Judge Abdul Karim Abdul Jalil rejected the defence's argument that some of Najib's actions were in the national interest. "There is no national interest here, only national embarrassment," he told the court in the administrative capital Putrajaya. Najib had "dishonestly misappropriated" the money, he added. Judge Karim also rejected Najib's defence that he believed the cash was a donation from Saudi royalty, saying there was "no evidence" for the claim.

But he agreed to a request for Najib to stay out of prison on bail while he lodges a final appeal with Malaysia's top court. Najib has been making a political comeback in recent months, campaigning for his party and presenting himself as a man of the people who defends the interests of the ethnic Malay Muslim majority. He followed proceedings online after a member of his legal team tested positive for the coronavirus, and said he was "disappointed" with the verdict. "I did not know, nor did I ask nor did I order the transfer of 42 million ringgit to my account," he told reporters.

'Nightmare for Malaysia'

His lawyers had sought to delay yesterday's ruling over the COVID case in the legal team, and by seeking to introduce new evidence at the 11th hour as part of the appeal. But the court rejected both moves. Najib's final appeal to the top court will likely take months. If that fails, his only option will be a pardon from the king.

If Najib-who remains an MP-loses the next court challenge, he will be jailed and barred from holding political office. Despite his conviction, he is still influential and popular among some voters-a group of supporters gathered outside court yesterday, urging the judges to rule in Najib's favour. The blue-blooded politician, whose father and uncle were both prime ministers, has about 4.6 million followers on Facebook, where he frequently comments on the news and criticises rivals. He campaigned at local polls last month in the bellwether state of Malacca, helping his party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), to a landslide victory.

Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia expert from the University of Nottingham, predicted Najib will "fight on, couching his personal interest as that of the party and nation". But she added: "His comeback dream is a nightmare for Malaysia, fuelling polarisation and damaging the country's reputation." Najib is currently facing two other ongoing 1MDB-related trials. The most significant centres on allegations he illicitly obtained more than $500 million. - AFP