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Sentence halved for Malaysia's ex-PM Najib, jailed in 1MDB scandal

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak escorted by prison officers as the jailed politician left the court after court proceedings in Kuala Lumpur

By Rozanna Latiff

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) -Former Malaysian premier Najib Razak, who was convicted of graft over the multibillion-dollar 1MDB scandal, could be released by 2028 after his jail sentence was halved, prompting uproar from critics who called on the government to explain the decision.

The pardons board, chaired by Malaysia's king, said on Friday it made the decision this week after reviewing an application for a royal pardon by Najib, who began serving a 12-year jail term in August 2022. It did not give a reason.

The reduction in Najib's sentence comes amid accusations that current Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim is backsliding on promised reforms, after a string of corruption cases linked to Najib and leaders with ties to his party were dropped last year.

Anwar has long campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, but joined hands with Najib's graft-tainted party, the United National Malays Organisation (UMNO), to form a government in November 2022, after an election that resulted in a hung parliament.

The board's decision on Monday was among the last acts of former king Al-Sultan Abdullah of Pahang state, who ended his five-year reign under Malaysia's rotating system of monarchy this week. He was succeeded on Wednesday by Sultan Ibrahim from Johor in southern Malaysia.

Anwar said he respected the king's decision, adding that the pardons process was "beyond the prime minister or the government".

Other corruption trials faced by Najib will continue, Anwar said.

"At the same time, Najib has every right to again appeal to the king. The process has to be respected," he said in an interview with broadcaster Al Jazeera on Friday.

Malaysia's king plays a ceremonial role and acts largely on the advice of the prime minister and cabinet. But the monarch can grant clemency to convicts under discretionary powers granted by the federal constitution, with advice from a pardons board.

FINES REDUCED

Najib's daughter, Nooryana Najwa Najib, said his family appreciated the reduced sentence but were disappointed he was not granted a full pardon and released immediately.

"Najib Razak and his family remain steadfast in our position and confidence that he is innocent," she said in an Instagram post.

In addition to commuting Najib's sentence, the pardons board also reduced fines imposed on the ex-premier to 50 million ringgit ($10.59 million) from 210 million ringgit. An additional year would be imposed on his reduced jail term if he failed to pay the fine.

Youth party MUDA, which withdrew its support for Anwar last year citing corruption concerns, called on the government to explain the rationale for the decision.

"This will have a great impact on Malaysia's image in the eyes of the world, including our reputation, in terms of the economy and the legal system," it said.

Najib was convicted for graft linked to state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), from which U.S. and Malaysian investigators estimate $4.5 billion was stolen and more than $1 billion channelled to accounts linked to the former premier.

Najib has consistently denied wrongdoing, saying he was misled by fugitive financier Jho Low and other 1MDB officials over the source of the funds and that he believed they were donations from the Saudi royal family.

Najib was voted out of power in 2018 amid public anger over 1MDB, ending the rule of UMNO, which had governed Malaysia for six decades since independence.

UMNO returned to power two years later, amid political turmoil. It was voted out again in the 2022 election, but partnered with Anwar's coalition to form a majority.

Najib remains on trial in several other corruption cases linked to 1MDB.

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Martin Petty, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Kylie MacLellan)