KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - Former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak was a "victim" of the multimillion-dollar 1MDB scandal that saw state coffers drained on his watch, his lawyer said Tuesday, as the ex-premier gave evidence in his own fraud trial.
Huge sums were stolen from sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, allegedly by the ex-prime minister and his cronies, and spent on everything from high-end real estate to artwork.
Najib's coalition was ousted at the polls last year after six decades in power, largely due to public anger over the scandal.
He has since been arrested and hit with dozens of charges linked to the looting of the investment vehicle.
"Najib is not part of the conspiracy. He is a victim as much as others in the 1MDB scandal," his lawyer Muhammad Shafee Adbullah told reporters.
"The leader of the pack is Jho Low," he said, referring to fugitive Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho, a member of Najib's inner circle who allegedly masterminded the elaborate fraud that spanned from the United States to Switzerland, Dubai and Singapore.
"The crux of my defense is the entire scheme is designed by Jho Low," Shafee added.
Low "portrayed himself as someone influential in the Middle East countries," Najib told the packed courtroom, speaking calmly during five hours of testimony.
"I thought his influence and connections will help 1MDB achieve its goals and attract investments."
Najib, 66, went on trial in April over the controversy, in a case centered on the transfer of 42 million ringgit ($10.1 million) from former 1MDB unit SRC International into his bank accounts.
The former leader arrived at the court wearing a blue suit and held a brief Muslim prayer with supporters at the building's steps.
Defense proceedings began with Najib giving testimony under oath. He will be cross-examined by prosecutors and is expected to be on the witness stand for around four days.
He began his testimony reading from a 243-page statement, recalling his long career in politics and ministerial posts he held since 1978, including the post of finance minister, and giving lengthy background on the setting up of 1MDB and SRC.
Defense lawyers had earlier said it would take two days for him to read the entire statement, but as his testimony went on, it appeared it would take longer.
He was able to read only 70 pages in his statement by the end of the day. The trial will resume Wednesday.
Najib is facing four charges of corruption and three counts of money-laundering in the trial. Each charge of corruption carries a maximum jail term of 20 years, and each money-laundering count is punishable by a term of up to 15 years.
Prosecutors have argued that Najib wielded huge influence over the unit and knew that stolen money was being funneled from it into his accounts.
But Najib told the court: "I, in an absolute and unequivocal manner, like to state that I do not have any personal interest in SRC, except in a professional manner as the prime minister and minister of finance and in the interest of the public."
Lawyer Shafee said they will prove that Najib "did not misappropriate funds ... either directly or indirectly" and "did not act dishonestly."
The amount transferred to his account "was done without his knowledge or involvement" as the transactions "were being manipulated by third parties without his knowledge and approval," Shafee said.
The case is one of several 1MDB-linked trials investigating Najib's conduct. The biggest opened in August, centering on allegations he illicitly obtained over $500 million from the fund.
U.S. authorities who are also investigating the fraud, as money was allegedly laundered through the American financial system, believe $4.5 billion was looted from the fund.