Multiple lawyers, tears and desperation – the drama of former Malaysia PM Najib’s week in court

It appeared that many did not expect Najib - the son of Malaysia's second prime minister and himself groomed to be premier since the age of 23 - to fall this far from grace and land himself in prison.

Ram Anand

Ram Anand

The Straits Times


Supporters of Najib Razak react during a break in his final appeal trial outside the Federal Court in Putrajaya on Aug 23, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

August 24, 2022

PUTRAJAYA – A five-day hearing in the Malaysian Federal Court that culminated in former premier Najib Razak’s conviction and jail sentence being upheld on Tuesday (Aug 23) served up plenty of chicanery.

This included a revolving door of lawyers, repeated emotional pleas to the judges that were met with stern rebukes, and Najib’s public statements revealing his “desperation”.

Then, there were the tears from family members and supporters as the outcome drew closer – and decidedly clearer.

No fewer than five different law firms represented Najib over five days of hearing. But they served only to make multiple attempts to adjourn proceedings or cast doubts on the integrity of judges, instead of actually making any submissions on the main appeal itself.

Najib switched his slate of lawyers in July as part of his defence strategy; he changed his legal team at least three times over the past month.

His lawyers eventually came to court unprepared for the main submissions, citing a lack of time. They attempted to adjourn proceedings, after failing in their attempts to void the conviction by casting doubts on the integrity of the High Court judge who convicted Najib in 2020.

When repeated adjournment attempts failed, they turned the attention on Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat, who was chairing the hearing’s five-member bench, and sought to recuse her over four-year-old Facebook posts that her husband made, critical of Najib.

The constant refusal to make submissions and the changing flight of lawyers even drew criticism from the Malaysian Bar, which last week warned of possible disciplinary action against Najib’s lead counsel Hisyam Teh Poh Teik for refusing to make submissions when prompted by the court, and attempting to discharge himself when adjournment was not granted.

Hours before the verdict on Tuesday came another long shot as two lawyers briefly appeared in court attempting to represent Najib on the application to recuse the Chief Justice – but without preparing any submissions.

Mr Shafee Abdullah, who was discharged by Najib last month before reappearing on Tuesday, asked for a one-day adjournment for him to prepare submissions. When this was not granted, he swiftly left the court, telling it that he would return on Wednesday morning.

The Chief Justice, however, rebuked Mr Shafee: “That’s up to you if you want to be here tomorrow morning. But if the matter is done today, there is no need for anyone to be here tomorrow.”

However, this was not the last of the unorthodox strategies employed by Najib’s legal team. Mr Firoz Hussein Ahmad Jamaluddin, a lawyer representing Najib in another case, showed up barely minutes after Mr Shafee with a similar application for an adjournment of a few hours so that he could make submissions on the recusal.

This ticked off lead prosecutor V. Sithambaram, who said that there “must be some decorum” in the courthouse, and said that the court was “not a circus”.

Mr Firoz’s application was also swiftly rejected.

The judges last week had already told Najib’s legal team that its lack of preparation should not mean an automatic adjournment.

In delivering grounds of judgment when rejecting an application by Mr Hisyam last Tuesday for a three-month adjournment, Justice Tengku Maimun said: “While your client has the right to change counsel, he is not entitled to make that choice at the expense of the court, prosecution and the entire justice system.”

Najib, 69, who had appeared restless throughout the five days in court, made emotional public pleas. Last week, he issued a statement that the change of lawyers was born out of desperation, and on Sunday, he spoke of feeling alone and betrayed as the writing on the wall became clearer.

By Tuesday, he cut a subdued figure as he read out his statement from the dock minutes before the final verdict was read out, maintaining that he had not been given a fair hearing.

Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor and three children were in court for the verdict.

Daughter Nooryana Najwa Najib later said in an Instagram post: “You did not get your day of justice today, neither did we stand a fighting chance. We are so proud of your strength.”She and her brother Norashman Najib comforted their father after the verdict was announced, while Rosmah, who is also facing charges of graft and solicitation of bribes, appeared to be in tears while patting her husband.

Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor (centre) arriving at the Federal Court on Aug 23. PHOTO: REUTERS

Najib Razak (centre) with his children Norashman (second from left) and Nooryana Najwa (second from right) during a break in his appeal at the Federal Court in Putrajaya on Aug 18, 2022. PHOTO: AFP[/captiion]

Despite the persistent backing from Najib’s party colleagues, only Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was in court on Tuesday. He was seen consoling Najib after the verdict was read.

Outside, some among the hundreds of supporters chanting “Bossku”, Najib’s famous moniker meaning “my boss”, were in tears when the outcome became clear. Some echoed the claim that Najib was not given a fair hearing in court.

It appeared that many did not expect Najib – the son of Malaysia’s second prime minister and himself groomed to be premier since the age of 23 – to fall this far from grace and land himself in prison.

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