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Najib pleads not guilty to CBT charges

Former PM also claims trial for abuse of power charge; trial tentatively set for Feb 8-18, March 4-8, March 11-15

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Malaysia's former prime minister Najib Razak greets his supporters on Wednesday after bail was set at RM1 million.

Kuala Lumpur

JUST eight weeks after losing an election, former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak was charged on Wednesday with abuse of power and criminal breach of trust in an investigation of how billions of dollars went missing from a state fund.

Najib, who was detained on Tuesday, pleaded not guilty.

The charges and his court appearance were the culmination of a swift and stunning downfall for a premier who led the country for nearly a decade.

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"I believe in my innocence and this is the best chance to clear my name," Najib told reporters outside the courtroom after being released on bail of RM1 million (S$337,000) and ordered to surrender his passport.

Crowds of journalists and onlookers jostled for a glance of Najib, and some backers of his UMNO party chanted and held up placards in support of a man whose father, Malaysia's second prime minister, is held in high regard.

National television networks broadcast live images of Najib's convoy moving through morning rush-hour traffic to the court in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, an extraordinary spectacle few could have imagined before the May 9 election upset.

Najib thwarted corruption allegations for three years after revelations in 2015 that hundreds of millions of dollars from troubled state fund 1MDB were diverted to his personal accounts.

But his life has unravelled since the election defeat by his one-time mentor and the country's most seasoned politician, Mahathir Mohamad, who returned to the prime minister's office he occupied from 1981 to 2003.

Dr Mahathir reopened an investigation into the fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), and barred Najib from leaving the country. Wednesday's charges fulfilled an election promise to prosecute Najib, whom he called a "thief" during the campaign.

The charges are the result of the investigation by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), Attorney-General Tommy Thomas said. "As far as I'm concerned, we are looking at it from a criminal law perspective. Doesn't matter who the personality is." Mr Thomas indicated there could be more charges in the case as the MACC continues its investigations.

Dr Mahathir has sought to recoup US$4.5 billion potentially siphoned from 1MDB. A parliamentary committee in 2016 identified at least US$4.2 billion in irregular transactions by the fund, with the US Department of Justice saying some cash was used to purchase a 300-foot yacht, luxury homes, artwork, and stakes in several Hollywood films, including "The Wolf of Wall Street."

The charges allege that between Dec 24 to Dec 29, 2014, at AmIslamic Bank Bhd, Najib as prime minister and finance minister was given the mandate to manage RM4 billion of funds belonging to SRC International Sdn and that he committed a breach of trust on RM27 million.

Over the same period he's alleged to have committed a second breach of trust on RM5 million. And from Feb10 to March 2, 2015, he committed a third breach of trust on RM10 million, the charges note.

The court also heard Najib allegedly used his position to gain gratification of RM42 million for himself by granting a government guarantee on RM4 billion of loans from Kumpulan Wang Persaraan (Diperbadankan) to SRC International between Aug 17, 2011 and Feb 8, 2012.

Najib's next court dates have been tentatively set for Feb 8-18, March 4-8 and March 11-15 for the trial, totalling 19 days of hearing, said Judge Mohd Sofian Abd Razak, noting Aug 8 was set for case management.

Najib's lawyers are "seriously considering" seeking to disqualify the attorney general as prosecutor, alleging that Mr Thomas had a pre-conceived notion about the case, "even before being appointed as the A-G" said lawyer Mohd Shafee Abdullah. The court granted their request for an interim ban on any public statements commenting on the merits of the case in an unfair or prejudiced manner until Aug 8, Mr Shafee said.

During a press conference after the court hearing by the Attorney-General, Najib supporters turned rowdy, chanting "Bahasa Malaysia" when Mr Thomas spoke in English. The crowd then shouted "Melayu" and "Hidup Melayu" to drown out Mr Tommy's voice until he had to be escorted away. "I'm a little surprised. I was expecting questions from the press. I never expected that (the commotion). Hopefully, it was recorded and uploaded online for posterity so that everyone can make up their mind (about what happened)," he said.

When asked on the Bar Council's statement that the 1MDB task force has no legal standing to arrest Najib on Tuesday, Mr Thomas said the prosecuting team was made to understand that it was the MACC that conducted the investigations and made the arrest. BLOOMBERG, REUTERS