POLICE in Malaysia have seized hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of luxury items including Rolex watches and Hermès handbags from several properties owned by former Prime Minister Najib Razak.
The total value of the goods is estimated to be up to 1.1 billion Malaysian Ringgit (US$273 million) said the Royal Malaysian Police’s director of commercial crime investigation Amar Singh in a press conference on Wednesday.
The former premier is being investigated over accusations he siphoned off billions of dollars from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state-owned company established by Najib’s administration in 2009 ostensibly to help fund national economic development.
In what Singh called the “biggest seizure in Malaysian history”, police searched six properties owned by Najib in Kuala Lumpur and the administrative capital Putrajaya, finding a treasure trove of cash, luxury handbags, watches and jewellery.
A team of 150 officers were required to work over the Eid holiday to analyse the goods, he said. Some 35 bags contained RM116.7 million (US$29 million) in cash from 26 different currencies, taking three days to count.
Singh said police were holding 25 bags of gold, diamonds and other gems, valued by an expert at RM442 million (US$110 million). Pieces of jewellery were numbered 12,000 in total including 1400 necklaces, 2200 rings, 2100 bangles, 2800 pairs of earrings and 14 tiaras.
A singular necklace had the shop price of RM6.4 million (US$1.6 million), Singh said. The collection of 567 handbags from Hermès, Prada, Chanel and special-order luxury brand Bijan were worth RM51.3 million (US$13 million).
Some 423 watches seized were worth 78 million (US$19 million), with one Rolex valued at almost US$900,000. There were also RM374,000 (US$93,000) worth of sunglasses.
Najib has denied that the goods were purchased with funds from 1MDB, claiming that the cash, luxury handbags and jewellery were gifts to his family.
Singh said police would “soon” be questioning Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor over ownership of the items and who provided the gifts. As PM, Najib was only paid around US$92,000 per year.
“We’re flabbergasted,” Cynthia Gabriel, executive director of the Kuala Lumpur-based Center to Combat Corruption & Cronyism (C4 Center) told Asian Correspondent. “We continue to be shocked by much wealth has been amassed by the abuse of power by Najib during the time he was Prime Minister.”
“It is perhaps the largest corruption scandal in the world now,” she said, adding that the raids “show that there’s so much more that needs to connect in terms of the financial flows, the losses that have taken place.”
A report published by the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday claimed that Rosmah was likely a “political force” and “central actor” in the 1MDB affair, driven by her taste for expensive luxury goods.
Media coverage of her handbag collection in recent weeks has drawn comparisons with Emelda Marcos, the wife of corrupt former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Rosmah was questioned for five hours by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission earlier this month.
Her lawyers K. Kumaraendran and Geethan Ram Vincent denied her involvement with 1MDB in a statement this week, claiming that “this is a pure trial by media, expounded by the court of public opinion.”
“As the wife of the then prime minister, Rosmah stayed away from matters dealt by Najib and never did she at any point influence the outcome of any executive decisions made,” they said.
“Linking Rosmah directly to 1MDB and piling accusations against her, we are afraid, is an attempt to influence the outcome of the investigations which are currently underway and at worst, to tarnish Datin Seri Rosmah’s image.”
She has previously rejected scrutiny of her spending as politically motivated.
PM Mahathir Mohamad, who defeated Najib in the country’s May election, has vowed to reclaim the $4.5 billion thought to have been lost from 1MDB and has said authorities have “an almost perfect case” against his predecessor.
Attorney General Tommy Thomas has vowed the government “will institute criminal and civil proceedings in our courts against the alleged wrongdoers” and that there will be “no cover up”.
Earlier this month, a source told Reuters that Najib faces charges of money laundering and misappropriation of property, for which he could spend up to five years in prison.
Politicians have rarely prosecuted for corruption in Malaysia in the past, which is ranked 62 in the world on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.