Malaysian PM Anwar faces backlash over Najib’s acquittal

Minderjeet Kaur and Ili Shazwani
Kuala Lumpur
Malaysian PM Anwar faces backlash over Najib’s acquittal Former Prime Minister Najib Razak smiles while being escorted to a hearing at the Kuala Lumpur High Court in Kuala Lumpur, Feb. 7, 2023.
S. Mahfuz/BenarNews

Malaysia’s appeals court on Tuesday upheld ex-premier Najib Razak’s acquittal for audit tampering in the 1MDB financial scandal after prosecutors missed a crucial deadline for filing documents, adding fuel to criticism of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s fight against corruption.

Najib, whose party – the United Malays National Organization – is part of the ruling unity government with Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan, remains in prison as he is serving a 12-year jail term and faces other charges. But this latest development could inflame accusations of political interference against Anwar soon after two other leaders of the UMNO party propping up his federal coalition, including Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, were freed of corruption charges, analysts said.

“At the moment, the perception is getting worse,” said Tunku Mohar Mokhtar, a professor at International Islamic University Malaysia. “Now, some people think that even Najib can be acquitted and pardoned.”

Over the weekend, a coalition partner, the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance, withdrew support for the government, denying it a two-thirds majority by one vote. The party’s president and sole member in the parliament called the coalition government “unprincipled” in its crusade against graft.

The opposition bloc has also called for protests.

Courtroom drama

Along with Najib, former 1MDB chief executive officer Arul Kanda Kandasamy had been charged with deliberately tampering with a government audit report on Malaysia’s now-insolvent strategic investment arm.

On March 3, the Kuala Lumpur High Court acquitted both men as it found the state failed to prove the cases against them. Prosecutors attempted to appeal six days later but did not file the necessary paperwork.

On Tuesday, the Court of Appeal upheld the earlier court decision as prosecutors failed to submit the documents or seek a written extension by Tuesday’s deadline. The prosecution made an oral request for an extension citing public interest, but the court rejected the request.

Prosecutors did not comment to reporters following the ruling while defense lawyers questioned their action.

“If they were serious, they would have submitted the petition earlier. The fact that there was not even an extension application filed shows they were not inclined to pursue the appeal,” N. Sivananthan, Arul’s attorney, told BenarNews. “There was no written application filed even up to the very last moment. Just an oral application this morning. That was the odd part.”

Attorney N. Sivananthan (right), joined by his client, Arul Kanda Kandasamy
Attorney N. Sivananthan (right), joined by his client, Arul Kanda Kandasamy, speaks to reporters after the Court of Appeal ruling in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Sept.12, 2023. [S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

Najib’s lawyer, Shafee Abdullah, issued a statement saying, “The acquittal means Najib and Arul Kanda can proceed with their lives, liberated from these baseless allegations.”

Anwar under pressure

Analysts said Najib’s acquittal would fuel allegations of political interference in the justice system against Anwar’s government, especially as it came soon after two leaders of UMNO, a party that’s propping up his government, were freed of corruption charges.

The opposition bloc led by former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin plans to hold a major gathering on Sep. 16 in Kuala Lumpur, alleging that the government failed to handle these corruption cases properly.

Mohar said in addition to the opposition seizing momentum, young voters – who are particularly sensitive to government corruption – are taking to social media to express their frustrations, upping the pressure on Anwar’s administration.

“At the moment, at least at the parties’ leadership levels, they seem to rally behind Anwar,” he said. “However, Anwar cannot afford to continue giving the perception that his government has backed down on reforms, especially the rule of law.”

Trust in the fragile government would return, he said, if “high-profile cases end with guilty verdicts for the VIP defendants.”

Critics are focusing on Anwar’s pledge to separate the powers of public prosecutors, who are expected to pursue these cases independently, from those of the attorney general appointed by the government. 

Observers from the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, a Malaysia think-tank, said the attorney general has immense sway over prosecutors.

On Tuesday, Law Minister Azalina Othman issued a statement, saying the government had been in discussions with stakeholders, including the attorney general, to implement the separation. 

A day earlier, Anwar defended himself against allegations that he had abandoned the idea of separating the two offices, but he also warned against “bulldozing” the process. 

Muhammad Izmer Yusof, who teaches at Universiti Malaysia Perlis, said the government is already hurt by inflationary concerns. 

What it needs, he said, is “something that can resolve or help ease the people’s burden in terms of price hikes.”

“If the government could come up with something that could ease the people’s burden amidst the rising cost of living, it might help tone down” the pressure facing Anwar’s government, he said.


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