Barely 24 hours after Malaysia’s former prime minister Najib Razak was carted off to Kajang Prison in Selangor to begin his 12-year prison sentence for corruption, his supporters have started issuing calls for him to be pardoned by the king.
The 69-year-old ex-leader, who was in office from 2009 until his shock ouster at the general election of 2018, was jailed on August 23 after losing his final appeal in a case linked to the massive looting of the 1MDB state investment fund. The verdict, which involved Najib’s theft of around $10 million from SRC International, a unit of 1MDB, has been hailed in Malaysia as a major step toward accountability for pilfering of the state fund.
As The Associated Press reported, around 300 of Najib’s supporters, mostly dressed in black, rallied briefly outside the national palace in Kuala Lumpur yesterday, calling for the king to pardon the former leader. The protesters repeated Najib’s claim that he didn’t receive a fair trial because the Federal Court dismissed his allegations of judicial bias, and repeatedly refused to delay the hearing to give his lawyers time to prepare.
“I would like to request for a full pardon to be given immediately to this person who has served honorably,” said Syed Mohammad Imran Syed Abdul Aziz, a member of Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and president of the group that organized the protest, Reuters reported. “His service and contributions have been torn apart in a humiliating way.” Protesters also urged UMNO, which returned to power last year after defections caused the collapse of the reformist government that won the 2018 general elections, to push for a pardon.
The protests are an indication that with Najib’s hopes of a legal challenge now exhausted, his best remaining hope of an early release is to mobilize his base and generate public pressure for a royal pardon. (Legal experts say that Najib must file a petition for a pardon within 14 days or lose his post as a parliamentarian.)
Yesterday’s rally, while relatively small, offered a preview of the political fight that is likely to unfold alongside the run-up to the general election that is due to be held by September 2023. Despite losing his appeal, the question of Najib’s fate – and whether he serves his full 12-year sentence – has now been shunted into the political arena, where the former PM retains considerable influence. His camp is likely to play heavily on the alleged unfairness of the case, and capitalize on the fact that King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, who holds Malaysia’s rotating post of monarch, is from Najib’s home state of Pahang and reportedly knows him well.
The battle lines over Najib’s carceral fate are already being drawn. With calls for a royal pardon now being aired by his supporters, the electoral watchdog Bersih yesterday launched an online petition urging the king to let Najib serve his sentence, and arguing that he had been granted a fair trial.
“With all our hearts, we appeal to Your Majesty to consider our request to deny any appeal for a pardon by Najib, who has brought shame to this country,” states the petition, which had been signed by more than 30,000 people as of yesterday. Even if Najib has no shame for what he has done, we the rakyat [people] have to live with the indignity of being known for the world’s largest case of kleptocracy.” More than 30,000 people had signed the petition as of yesterday.
It is currently unclear whether UMNO will push hard for a pardon. UMNO party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, formerly Najib’s deputy, said the party will continue to support Najib in the other court cases he faces to ensure he “gets justice and is not a victim of political persecution.” Zahid, who also faces corruption charges, said even though Najib is in prison, his “fighting spirit” to help the party rise again after defeat at the last general election “still burns strong.”
However, there are sound political reasons for Prime Minister Ismail Sabri to refrain from pushing for a royal pardon, at least in the short term. First, public anger at the 1MDB scandal, which helped fuel UMNO’s defeat at the 2018 general election, remains considerable, and with a new election due sometime next year, he would not wish to taint his own administration, and possible chances of winning another term as prime minister, by association with the 1MDB scandal.
Second, there are also internal factional rivalries that could weigh into how Ismail Sabri handles the issue. The prime minister is in a UMNO faction that is opposed to Najib’s and could use his rival’s situation to shore up his own power base. All this will ensure that the political battle over Najib’s future will also play out within Malaysia’s ruling party.