“IF YOU are listening to this message,” began the recording posted on the Facebook page of Najib Razak, the Malaysian prime minister unseated in elections in May, “it means action has been taken.” The action in question was Mr Najib’s arrest, on July 3rd. After a night in jail, he was charged with three counts of breach of trust and one of abuse of power, all tied to the disappearance of billions of dollars from 1MDB, a state development fund. Mr Najib pleaded not guilty and has been released on bail, although he is not permitted to leave the country. His trial will begin in February.
The arrest had been a long time coming. News of the scandal first emerged in 2015. But Mr Najib sacked the attorney-general and any other colleagues who wanted it properly investigated. He airily dismissed the $681m that had appeared in his personal accounts as a gift from an unnamed member of the Saudi royal family, since returned. Authorities in America, Switzerland, Singapore and elsewhere painstakingly charted the money trail through a series of secretive accounts and shell companies. America’s Justice Department even began a lawsuit to reclaim apartments, paintings, jewels and a yacht that it alleged had been bought with the stolen funds. All the while, the Malaysian authorities insisted that there was nothing to investigate.
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That changed when Mr Najib lost the election. Soon afterwards he was hauled before the country’s anti-corruption commission, along with several family members. His residences have been raided. Investigators have confiscated almost 300 boxes of designer handbags, as well as piles of jewels and cash. It has not helped that his estranged stepdaughter has publicly railed about how her parents kept “money in briefcases” and “safes full of jewels, precious stones and cash”.
Mr Najib insists his prosecution is an act of revenge by his political opponents. Mahathir Mohamad, the new prime minister, insists that Mr Najib will be treated fairly, and that the government is merely seeking to restore the rule of law. But that is a huge task, and Dr Mahathir is an unlikely candidate to complete it. Mr Najib was once his protégé. During a previous stint as prime minister, Dr Mahathir presided over trials that human-rights groups condemned as politically motivated, such as the prosecution for sodomy of Anwar Ibrahim, a lieutenant who fell from grace but has once again become an ally. Graft accusations have been levelled against ministers in the new government. The candidate most closely allied with Mr Najib won the contest to replace him as head of Malaysia’s oldest and grandest political party, the United Malays National Organisation. It will take more than one trial to do away with the country’s long tradition of abuse of power.