Asia Politics

Ex-Malaysian leader Najib could benefit from more delays in his corruption trial, experts say

Key Points
  • After a two-month delay, former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's graft trial — linked to the multi-billion dollar 1MDB scandal — started on Wednesday.
  • Analysts say there are political incentives for Najib if his trial is delayed, so they expect more attempts by his defense team to push back proceedings.
  • Najib's lawyer, Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, was not available for comment when CNBC contacted his office.

The first of many trials facing former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak started on Wednesday after weeks of delay — but analysts say the ex-leader's defense team is likely to try to postpone the proceedings further.

Najib — unexpectedly ousted in the general election last May — faces more than 40 charges linked to the disappearance of billions of dollars from Malaysian state investment firm 1MDB.

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What happened to Malaysia's 1MDB money?

The current trial involves seven charges related to an alleged transfer of 42 million Malaysian ringgit ($10.3 million) from a former 1MDB unit to Najib's personal bank account. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Wednesday's trial began after a two-month delay and is set to recommence on April 15. Earlier postponements followed appeals over procedural matters.

Analysts said there are political incentives for Najib if his trial is delayed, and they expect more attempts by the defense to push back proceedings.

"It's fairly obvious that the defense team is trying to delay the trial as much as possible ... they will throw up some legal maneuvers again when the trial resumes," James Chin, director of the Asia Institute Tasmania at the University of Tasmania, told CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Thursday.

Najib's lawyer, Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, did not make himself available for comment when CNBC contacted his office.

Time to 'rebuild' a public persona

Chin explained that a guilty verdict on the seven charges could affect Najib's chances with his other trials. A finding of guilt could also affect the legal proceedings scheduled for his wife, who was charged with offenses related to money laundering.

Najib's wife, Rosmah Mansor, has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Chin added that Najib would lose his seat in the Malaysian Parliament if he were found guilty, potentially ending his political career.

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Why Malaysia's Najib is maintaining a high profile

"If he's no longer a member of parliament, it'll be much, much harder for him to make a political comeback," said Chin.

Najib's party lost last year's general elections as the 1MDB scandal swirled around him.

The ex-prime minister's recent social media activity has been seen by some observers as an attempt to engineer a political comeback.

"What he has done during these delays is reinventing himself, rebuild his public persona. He is now positioning himself as the champion of the people," Amir Fareed, director of strategy at political risk consultancy KRA Group, told CNBC's "Street Signs" on Thursday.

Some of those efforts may have paid off. Najib's party recently defeated the ruling coalition in two closely watched by-elections in the districts of Cameron Highlands and Seminyih.

WATCH: The prosecution's evidence amounts to nothing, says Najib's lawyer

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The prosecution's evidence amounts to nothing: Najib's lawyer