Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak sat in the dock Wednesday at the start of his corruption trial, with the chief prosecutor alleging he wielded "near absolute power" for nearly a decade during which he stands accused of pilfering millions of dollars from the 1MDB state investment fund.
"The accused is not above the law and his prosecution and this trial should serve as precedents for all future holders of this august office," Attorney General Tommy Thomas said in his opening statement.
The trial was originally due to start in February but was delayed by procedural matters. Najib's lawyers on Wednesday filed an urgent motion to challenge the charges, which include criminal breach of trust, money laundering and abuse of power. The High Court judge said he will hear the application at a later date and ordered the trial to proceed.
Ten years ago this Wednesday, Najib became Malaysia's sixth prime minister but anger over the 1MDB scandal led to his spectacular electoral loss last May. U.S. investigators say more than $4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB by associates of Najib between 2009 and 2014. They say the ill-gotten gains were laundered through layers of bank accounts in the U.S. and other countries to finance Hollywood films and buy hotels, a luxury yacht, artworks, jewelry and other extravagances.
Some $700 million from the fund that Najib set up for Malaysia's economic development allegedly landed in his own bank account.
According to Thomas, Najib was the real power behind 1MDB and its fully owned subsidiary SRC "in directing and managing their affairs" instead of the board of directors. Thomas told the court that evidence will show that part of the 42 million ringgit ($10.3 million) funneled from SRC was used by Najib for a shopping spree at Chanel in Honolulu, renovation works at two of his private homes and also disbursed to political parties in the then ruling coalition.
One of only a few Southeast Asian leaders to be arraigned after losing office, Najib, 65, has denied any wrongdoing.
Wearing a dark blue blazer and tie, Najib smiled when he arrived at the court building and bowed his head in prayer with his supporters.
Wednesday's trial is the first of several against Najib, who has been charged with 42 counts in one of Malaysia's biggest criminal proceedings. His wife, Rosmah Mansor, also has been charged with money laundering and tax evasion linked to 1MDB. She has also pleaded not guilty and her trial has not been set.
The first witness, an official with the Companies Commission of Malaysia, took the stand Wednesday. He testified about the directorship and records of SRC and two other companies used as intermediaries to channel the fund to Najib's bank account.
The trial will resume April 15.
Najib didn't speak to reporters as he left the courthouse. He later wrote on Facebook: "God willing, I am confident that a court that is fair will prove that I am not guilty. We will continue to fight."
The patrician Najib, whose father and uncle were Malaysia's second and third prime ministers respectively, has fought back with a political makeover on social media that aims to transform his image from an out-of-touch elitist to a leader for the working class.
A Malay-language catchphrase translating to "What's to be ashamed about, my boss?" was coined while he was campaigning in a recent by-election and has become his new rallying cry. Expensive tailored suits have been replaced by hoodies and jeans. In an offbeat music video he uploaded on social media, Najib slammed the new government as "liars" and crooned about the "slander and revenge" against him in a Malay-language rendition of the 1970's R&B soul hit "Kiss and Say Goodbye" by the Manhattans.
He posts a dozen messages daily, mostly mocking the new government and its policies, and touching on the plight of the needy.
Despite his smiles and "cool" public persona, Najib could face years in prison if convicted.
Once a towering figure in politics, Najib has fallen from grace swiftly since his historic electoral loss, which led to the first change of government since Malaysia's independence from Britain in 1957.
The new government soon after it took office reopened investigations into 1MDB that had been stifled under Najib. He and his wife were barred from leaving the country and grilled by anti-graft officials, and their properties raided. Truckloads of luggage stashed with cash, jewelry and hundreds of expensive designer bags worth a staggering 1.1 billion ringgit ($270 million) were seized from their home and other properties.