On Tuesday, Malaysian prosecutors said that they will not appeal the acquittal of former Prime Minister Najib Razak in a case of audit tampering related to state fund 1MDB, a decision that has cast a further shadow over Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s anti-corruption credentials.
Najib was imprisoned last year on the first of several corruption trials linked to the multibillion-dollar 1MDB theft and is currently serving a 12-year sentence for abuse of power, criminal breach of trust, and money laundering.
However, in March of this year, a court found him not guilty on a separate charge of abusing his office to prevent the release of an audit report detailing the happenings at the troubled state fund.
The Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) was expected to appeal the acquittal, but Najib’s lawyers at Shafee & Co. said in a statement that they did not file the petition, having ” evidently found no grounds for appeal,” Reuters reported on Wednesday.
As far as Anwar’s political fortunes are concerned, the timing is not propitious. The move came barely two weeks after prosecutors dropped 47 corruption charges against Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the leader of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), an important member of Anwar’s unity government.
They dropped the charges not for lack of evidence. The Kuala Lumpur High Court accepted a prosecution request to grant Ahmad Zahid a “discharge not amounting to an acquittal,” or DNAA, after the AGC chose not to continue pursuing the case – and the High Court Judge Collin Lawrence rebuked the prosecution for squandering the court’s time. “Should the AGC decide to drop charges completely, he said, “much precious judicial time would have been wasted, and a great amount of taxpayers’ money will also have been wasted.”
It remains unclear why the AGC opted to request a DNAA, but the move has drawn criticism from across the Malaysian political spectrum, with many placing it within a long tradition of political meddling in the courts. The decision prompted MUDA, a youth-oriented party, to announce this week that it was dropping out of Anwar’s unity government. The move has even prompted some deflated reformists to suggest that Najib might be released from prison soon and the remaining 1MDB-related charges against him dropped.
Anwar claims that he has not interfered in the workings of the courts.
The seismic shift that has taken Malaysian politics since the 2018 general election, which spelled Najib’s downfall ended the unbroken hold on power of UMNO and the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition of which it was the dominant part. For much of his career, Anwar opposed the UMNO/BN juggernaut and was full-throated in his denunciation of the corruption that flourished at the heights of Malaysian politics, enduring two spells in prison on politically confected charges. But after the last general election in November of last year, he was forced to rely on UMNO/BN to form a government and keep the right-wing Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition from power. He went on to appoint Ahmad Zahid as deputy prime minister, despite the host of corruption charges against him.
For years, much of Anwar’s appeal has been the promise of a new kind of politics: one that would make a break from the patron-client relations that have dominated Malay nationalist politics under UMNO, and attract a broad, multi-ethnic support base. If Anwar loses his reputation for probity, it will only burnish the appeal of the PN opposition’s old-style ethno-religious appeals.