KUALA LUMPUR: Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was charged in court Wednesday with criminal breach of trust and corruption, two months after a multibillion-dollar graft scandal at a state investment fund led to his shock election defeat.
He pleaded not guilty to all charges. "I claim trial," he said in a barely audible voice as he stood in the dock at the High Court in Kuala Lumpur. Prosecutors demanded 4 million ringgit (nearly $1 million) bail, but the judge set the amount at 1 million ringgit in cash ($250,000) and ordered Najib to surrender his two diplomatic passports.
The patrician and luxury-loving Najib, wearing a suit and a red tie, appeared calm and smiled as he was escorted into the court complex. He had been arrested Tuesday by anti-graft officials over a suspicious transfer of 42 million ringgit ($10.4 million) into his bank accounts from SRC International, a former unit of the 1MDB state investment fund that U.S. investigators say was looted of billions by associates of Najib.
He was charged with abuse of power leading to gratification under Malaysia's anti-corruption law and three counts of criminal breach of trust. Each charge has a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. Whipping is also a penalty but Najib would be exempt because of his age.
Najib, 64, has accused Malaysia's new government of seeking "political vengeance."
In a recorded video posted on social media hours after his arrest, Najib apologized to Malaysians but remained defiant.
"As a normal human being, I am not perfect but believe me, that the accusations against me and my family are not all true," he said.
New Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad reopened investigations into 1MDB that were stifled under Najib's rule.
Najib set up 1MDB when he took power in 2009 but the fund amassed billions in debts and is being investigated in the U.S. and several other countries.
He and his wife were questioned last month over the SRC case by the anti-graft agency and have were barred from leaving the country. Police have also seized jewelry and valuables valued at more than 1.1 billion ringgit ($272 million) from properties linked to Najib.
U.S. investigators say $4.5 billion was stolen and laundered from 1MDB by Najib's associates, including some $700 million that landed in Najib's bank account.
Najib's laywer Muhammad Shafee Abdullah asked for the case to be expedited.
Najib "is anxious to clear his name," he told the High Court. "We are pretty confident about this case."
Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert at John Cabot University in Rome, said Najib's arrest was the "inevitable outcome" after he lost power.
"It shows the resolve of the new government to address previous abuses of power. It has been done judiciously so far and speaks to a needed reckoning for Malaysia and a key step toward a cleaner governance," she said in an email.
Malaysia's new attorney general, Tommy Thomas, will head the prosecution in the case.