Malaysia's top court on Thursday refused to allow ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak's new lawyer to withdraw from his graft case linked to the looting of the 1MDB state fund, preventing a possible delay in his final appeal.
It was another blow for Najib after the Federal Court on Tuesday rejected his bid to quash his conviction and 12-year prison sentence by alleging judicial bias. The court also dismissed attempts by Najib's new defense team, appointed just weeks earlier, to postpone the appeal by three months and ordered hearings to begin Thursday. The court said the team should have been ready to appear at the agreed date when it took on the case.
1MDB was a development fund Najib set up shortly after taking power in 2009. Investigators allege at least $4.5 billion was stolen from the fund and laundered by Najib’s associates. Najib was found guilty of abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering for illegally receiving $9.4 million from SRC International, a former unit of 1MDB.
At the start of Thursday's hearing, Najib's new lead counsel, Hisyam Teh Poh Teik, told the court that he wanted to withdraw because he wasn't given enough time to prepare.
The five-member court denied his request, but Hisyam remained defiant and later said he would not make any new submissions in the appeal in addition to those already prepared by the previous lawyer.
Najib reacted strongly to the court's refusal to let Hisyam withdraw, saying his right to a fair hearing was at stake. He said he was left with no effective counsel or proper representation because Hisyam had not had enough time to prepare for the appeal.
“Any new team bringing in fresh ideas will need time. I am not ashamed to say, I was desperate, as would any litigant in my predicament," Najib said in a statement. “I am in effect without counsel, and I humbly exercise my right for the same to be accorded to me. I am still hopeful that the courts will still give me a fair and just trial."
Najib, 69, would become Malaysia’s first former prime minister to be imprisoned if his appeal fails. He has maintained he is innocent and has been out on bail pending his appeals.
The 1MDB scandal sparked investigations in the U.S. and several other countries and caused the downfall of Najib’s government in 2018 elections. Najib faces a total of 42 charges in five separate trials linked to 1MDB, and his wife is also on trial on corruption charges.
Despite his graft conviction, Najib remains politically influential. His United Malays National Organization leads the current government after defections of lawmakers caused the collapse of the reformist government that won the 2018 polls.