Malaysia’s former leader Najib Razak was hit with 25 charges of corruption and money laundering linked to the 1MDB mega-scandal on Thursday, including allegations that hundreds of millions of dollars were transferred into his personal bank accounts.
Mr Najib was charged in a Kula Lumpur court with four counts of abuse of power and 21 counts of money laundering related to the alleged looting from the state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad.
He pleaded not guilty to all 25 charges.
Mr Najib, who suffered a shock election defeat in May, was arrested on Wednesday by officials investigating claims that he and his cronies looted billions of dollars from 1MDB in an audacious fraud.
He has already been arrested twice and hit with several counts related to 1MDB since losing power, but observers say the latest charges represent a major step forward in efforts to bring him to justice.
Allegations Mr Najib and his cronies pilfered huge sums from the investment vehicle and spent them on everything from high-end real estate to works of art were a major factor in the defeat of his long-ruling coalition to a reformist alliance headed by veteran leader Mahathir Mohamad.
Mr Mahathir, 93, serving his second stint as premier after coming out of retirement to take on Mr Najib, ramped up probes in the 1MDB scandal and vowed to have the ex-leader prosecuted.
The 64-year-old was detained on Wednesday by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission over the alleged bank transfers, before facing further questioning by police on Thursday morning.
Afterwards, deputy national police chief Noor Rashid Ibrahim said in a statement that “as many as 21 charges involving $681 million have been prepared”.
The charges include “nine counts of receiving illegal money, five counts of using illegal money and seven counts of transferring illegal money to other entities”.
The police statement did not mention 1MDB. However the US Department of Justice, which is seeking to recover assets allegedly bought with stolen 1MDB money, claims that $681 million from the fund was funnelled to Mr Najib’s accounts.
The former prime minister has already been charged with money-laundering, criminal breach of trust and abusing his position over claims he pocketed some $10 million from a former unit of 1MDB. He denied any wrongdoing.
But the latest charges are more significant and relate to a key episode in the 1MDB scandal.
When reports surfaced in 2015 that huge sums from 1MDB flowed into Mr Najib’s bank accounts before a hotly contested election, it dramatically ratcheted up pressure on the leader and his inner circle over the scandal.
The attorney general later cleared Mr Najib of any wrongdoing, saying the money was a personal donation from the Saudi royal family, and closed down domestic investigations.
But as allegations surrounding the fund multiplied, Mr Najib became increasingly authoritarian, jailing political opponents and introducing laws that critics said were aimed at stifling dissent.
1Malaysia Development Berhad was set up in 2009 and overseen by Mr Najib, with the purported aim of promoting economic development in Malaysia, but accusations quickly mounted the fund was a vehicle for the leader and his cronies to loot state coffers.
Mr Najib and his luxury-loving wife Rosmah Mansor became hated figures, symbols of the rot in a corrupt elite that had ruled Malaysia uninterrupted since independence from Britain in 1957.
The US justice department estimates that $4.5 billion in total was looted from the fund.