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Malaysia's ex-PM Najib ‘pivotal’ in 1MDB plunder, court hears

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Trial of former Malaysian Prime Minister begins

KUALA LUMPUR Malaysia's former prime minister Najib Razak played a pivotal role in plundering state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and hundreds of millions of dollars were illicitly channelled to his bank account, a prosecutor said yesterday at the opening of his biggest graft trial.

Claims that Najib and his cronies pilfered massive sums from the fund and spent it on everything from real estate to artwork contributed to the defeat of his long-ruling coalition to a reformist alliance.

After losing power last year, Najib was arrested and hit with dozens of charges related to 1MDB. He is expected to face several trials.

The first started earlier this year but yesterday's is the biggest, with Najib accused of 21 counts of money-laundering and four of abuse of power, centring on allegations that he illicitly obtained RM2.28 billion (S$752 million) from 1MDB.

Opening the trial, lead prosecutor Gopal Sri Ram said Najib used an "elaborate charade" and played a "pivotal role" in plundering 1MDB, a fund established with the ostensible aim of boosting Malaysia's economy.

"His objective was to enrich himself," the prosecutor told the packed High Court in Kuala Lumpur, as he outlined how 1MDB funds were channelled in a "circuitous route" between 2011 and 2014 to Najib.

Najib - who was also finance minister - put himself in "sole control" of the fund's important affairs and used his position "to exert influence over the board of 1MDB to carry out certain abnormal transactions with undue haste", he said.

In August 2013, more than RM2 billion was sent to Najib's account at a Malaysian bank before it was quickly transferred out again, said the prosecutor.

When news emerged of the looting, Najib sought to cover his tracks by producing "sham" documents that claimed the money was a donation from an Arab prince, Mr Gopal said.

"The accused took active steps to evade justice," he added.

The court also heard Najib was the "mirror image" of fugitive financier Jho Low, who has been charged in both Malaysia and the US, and the two men "acted as one" when it came to their dealings with 1MDB.

Low, a Malaysian known for partying with Hollywood A-listers, held no official positions at 1MDB but exerted huge influence over its operations.

The case relates to a vital part of the 1MDB saga.

When reports surfaced in 2015 that huge sums linked to the fund had flowed into Najib's bank account, it dramatically ratcheted up pressure on him and he became increasingly authoritarian.

The attorney-general later cleared Najib of any wrongdoing, saying the money was a personal donation from the Saudi royal family, and closed down domestic investigations.

The 66-year-old denies all the charges.

Speaking after the proceedings, lawyer Muhammad Shafee Abdullah said Najib "has been misled. Jho Low himself has misled many people, has misled the bank and misled 1MDB".

Najib faces up to 20 years in jail for each of the abuse of power charges and five years in jail for each of the counts of money-laundering. - AFP