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Hermès Bags and Millions in Cash: The Fall of Malaysia’s Najib Razak

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak arrived in a black SUV and was ushered into the courthouse through a back door. Dozens of prison guards and police officers, some heavily armed, escorted him to a fifth-floor courtroom this month for his second trial on corruption charges.

Mr Najib, the spoiled son of the country’s second prime minister, Abdul Razak Hussein, was once seen as politically untouchable. Before Donald J. Trump became president of the United States, he called Najib “my favorite prime minister.”

But the law eventually overtook the Malaysian scion. Last month, Mr. Najib began serving a 12-year prison term for hoarding millions of dollars in public money. His downfall was brought about by his own brash behavior and personal mantra: “cash is king.” While in power, he siphoned hundreds of millions of dollars from a government fund to pay for election campaigns and fund his lavish lifestyle.

Rosmah Mansor, infamous for her extravagant Hermès jewelry and handbags, is also going to jail. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison this month for soliciting and receiving bribes and was ordered to pay an extraordinary fine of $216 million.

In Malaysia, where officials have long committed rampant thefts and many voters have become disillusioned with rampant corruption, the judiciary has been praised for standing firm in its judgment against the famous couple and reaffirming the rule of law.

“Nobody expected this to happen in Southeast Asia,” said James Chin, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Tasmania and an expert on Malaysian politics. “The sense of impunity has always been there. When you reach the number 1 position, you feel like you can do anything and get away with anything.”

When voters removed Mr Najib from office in 2018 — the first time his political party, the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, lost in national elections — the new government filed more than 40 charges against him. During the trial of Najib and on appeal, all nine judges who heard his case ruled that he was guilty. He faces four more trials and many more trips from his prison cell to the courthouse.

“The whole world knows that Najib has committed many crimes,” said a former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamed, whose coalition defeated Mr Najib and launched the criminal charges against him in 2018. “We were concerned that the courts would also be influenced by Najib, but apparently they remain very independent.”

A US Department of Justice investigation in 2016 found that $731 million had been transferred to Mr Najib’s bank accounts of the government investment fund he oversaw, 1 Malaysia Development Berhad or 1MDB. At least $4.5 billion from the fund was missing. Former aides have said Mr Najib was driven by the need to fund his reelection campaigns. Much of the money has yet to be recovered.

“In order to convince people to support him, he had to steal money,” said Mr Mahathir. “People are very happy that he has finally been detained.”

Despite the scale of the charges against him, Mr. Najib that he can make a comeback, get out of prison and restart his political career. For that to happen, Mr. Najib needs a pardon from the Malaysian King, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah.

After entering the prison, he filed a petition seeking a pardon that would release him from his conviction. Submitting the petition allowed him to keep his seat in parliament while his petition was pending.

UMNO has strong support among ethnic Malays, who have benefited from it during Mr Najib’s nine-year rule. The current Prime Minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, an ally of Mr Najib, is under pressure from UMNO to call elections as early as November. A win for the party would increase the chances of Mr. Najib on parole may increase.

Balding and bespectacled, Mr Najib, 69, projects a friendly, fatherly image to his large social media followers. His wife, Mrs. Rosmah, 70, is widely seen as a modern Lady Macbeth who incited her husband to steal government money to fund her international shopping trips.

She owns a $27.3 million pink diamond pendant that police say was purchased with money from the investment fund 1MDB. When agents raided the couple’s properties in 2018, they took $273 million in cash and luxury goods, including 567 handbags, 423 watches and 14 tiaras.

“Najib and Rosmah boldly ruled Malaysia together in a way that looted the nation,” said Liew Chin Tong, a former deputy defense minister.

At one point, Mr. Najib had hoped that Mr. Trump could help make the 1MDB scandal go away. In any case, the relationship between Mr. Trump and Mr. Najib goes back to 2014, when they played golf together at Mr. Trump’s Bedminster club in New Jersey.

After Mr Trump’s election, one of his top fundraisers, businessman Elliott Broidy, accepted $9 million from fugitive Malaysian financier Jho Low, a friend of Mrs. Rosmah’s son from her first marriage, Riza Aziz. mr. Low played a pivotal role in setting up the 1MDB fund and is now believed to be hiding in China.

The money was partly intended to lobby the Trump administration to shut down the investigation into the missing 1MDB money. Mr. Broidy managed to arrange for Mr. Najib to visit Mr. Trump at the White House in 2017, but there is no evidence that the president tried to help him.

Mr Broidy pleaded guilty in 2020 to conspiracy to violate foreign lobbying laws. Mr Trump pardoned him just before he left office.

Mr Najib was convicted in 2020 of seven counts of money laundering, criminal breach of trust and abuse of power for illegally receiving transfers of $9.8 million from SRC International, a former unit of the investment fund commonly known as 1MDB.

Malaysia’s highest court upheld Najib’s convictions on August 23 and he was taken directly to prison. His final trial will be held in the same courtroom and before the same judge who convicted his wife. Since being incarcerated, Mr. Najib made several trips to the hospital for high blood pressure treatment.

Ms Rosmah, who is at large while appealing her conviction, came to court earlier this month to review her husband’s trial on charges of tampering with a 1MDB audit. Out of court, she declined to speak to The New York Times.

During the trial of Mrs. Rosmah argued the accuser that she exercised significant influence over her husband because of her “presumptuous” nature. In his verdict, Judge Mohamad Zaini Mazlan agreed.

“It is clear that the accused dominates Najib,” he concluded. “She’s in control of him. She didn’t interfere in Najib’s duties or in the affairs of the government, but she did.’

He discovered that Mrs. Rosmah had demanded $42 million in bribes from a solar energy company, Jepak Holdings, which was seeking approval for a $279 million contract to supply energy to rural schools.

The $42 million payment to Ms. Rosmah would be a 15 percent commission to secure the project’s approval. She received two cash deliveries totaling approximately $1.5 million.

A former assistant to Mrs. Rosmah testified that he requested bribes from the company on her behalf. A company official testified that he put the money in bags and took it to her residences.

Some government officials questioned the company’s ability to carry out the project, but Mr. Najib ordered them to bypass normal procedures and negotiate the contract, the court ruled.

Ms Rosmah, who took the stand last week, denied the charges and claimed she was framed. But the judge found her guilty of one charge of soliciting a bribe and two charges of receiving a bribe. He sentenced her to 10 years on each count, with the sentences to run concurrently.

She is still facing 17 charges of money laundering and tax evasion.

At her sentencing, she tearfully pleaded for clemency. She said she had not influenced her husband or ever accepted money intended for the poor. And like Mr. Najib, she set herself up as a person who had been wrongly entangled in the justice system. “I am the victim of all this,” she said. “You did it to my husband and you want my family to suffer.”