Rosmah Mansor, the luxury-loving “Malaysian Imelda Marcos” and wife of disgraced former prime minister Najib Razak, was formally charged with 17 offences, including money-laundering, on Thursday as investigators appeared to be significantly widening their probe into the multibillion-dollar 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal. She pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Dressed in an orange floral baju kurung and a bright orange headscarf, the self-styled “First Lady of Malaysia” arrived at court after spending the night in the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission’s lock-up.
Bail was set at 2 million ringgit (US$482,000) and Rosmah’s passport was seized. She was also prohibited from meeting any of the prosecution’s witnesses, after the lead prosecutor claimed she had approached a witness requesting a statement in her favour.
The charges were laid two weeks after her husband, Najib, who was toppled by Mahathir Mohamad in the May general elections, was slapped with 25 further charges arising from the 1MDB scandal. Najib faces life in prison and attorney general Tommy Thomas could further widen the net to implicate Najib’s family members and colleagues in his party, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), which ruled the country for more than six decades.
Previously, Najib’s lawyer, Shafee Abdullah, was charged with money-laundering and tax evasion. Umno MP Abdul Azeez Abdul Rahim was arrested in connection with allegations of bribery and money-laundering.
Attending to matters of case management, Najib arrived at the Kuala Lumpur court complex about half-an-hour after his wife, appearing jovial and stopping to greet reporters stationed outside.
Dr Awang Azman, an associate professor with University Malaya’s Academy of Malay Studies, said the latest developments were a signal to Umno leadership to tread carefully, particularly if they were involved in the siphoning of state funds.
“Rosmah’s arrest was not done in a hurry, it took over 140 days,” he said. “It is a demonstration that Mahathir made sure the rule of law was implemented in accordance with procedure. Politically, it does not just place pressure on high-profile Umno members or linked individuals such as Najib, Shafee Abdullah, and Azeez Rahim – it is also a message to other Umno leaders to be more careful in their political actions and decisions.”
Rosmah, who has long been compared to Imelda Marcos – the wife of the late Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos – because of her luxury lifestyle and lavish spending, became increasingly reviled by both the public and her peers during Najib’s nine years in power.
In 2015, she complained about the rising cost of hairdressers and lamented having to fork out US$290 whenever her stylist made a house call, describing herself as a “housewife with no income”.
In her 2013 biography, she admitted to buying “some jewellery and dresses” with her own money, later saying she had saved prudently since youth.
Earlier this year, when the Malaysian police searched homes and offices linked to Najib, they seized 284 designer handbags – many still in their boxes or filled with millions in cash, designer watches or jewellery.
Rosmah’s children took to social media to air their views. Azrene Ahmad, her estranged daughter from her first marriage, posted on Instagram: “What is right will always be right, and what is wrong will always be wrong.”
Azrene had, earlier this year, alluded to “trespasses, deals and handshakes” involving her mother, who she claimed had emotionally, physically and mentally abused her. She also mentioned Rosmah’s use of shamans and witch doctors to “gain dominion” over her peers and family members, adding she and Najib would “reap what they sow”.
Rosmah’s other daughter, Nooryana Najib, was more sympathetic, posting a photo of Rosmah as a young mother and criticising the government for “going too far” by focusing on the women in Najib’s life.
“No matter how hard the circumstances are, I will always stand by the woman who gave birth to me, wiped my tears away when I was down, slept with me when I was sick, and taught me how to stand on my own two feet,” she wrote. “In your own words this morning mummy, insyaAllah, we will persevere.”
Najib also took to social media to express solidarity with a Facebook status update assuring his wife that God was listening “no matter how quiet the whisper from a sincere heart”.
“Don’t ever stop praying and keep holding on to your faith in God,” the disgraced former premier posted on the night of her arrest.
Observers believe Najib’s stepson, Riza Aziz, may be next to be charged. The film producer was interrogated several times by Malaysian anti-corruption authorities over his role in the 1MDB scandal, which allegedly includes using state funds to buy luxury properties in New York and London, and to finance several Hollywood films, including The Wolf of Wall Street. His production company, Red Granite Pictures, paid the US government a settlement of US$60 million.
The Pakatan Harapan government has promised voters a strong anti-corruption stance, and the recent spate of arrests have served to bolster public faith in the new administration. Opposition politicians, however, insist these charges were politically motivated and designed to silence detractors.
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