Najib’s 1MDB trial disrupted by Covid-19 fears again, as key witness met friend who tested positive

Datuk Seri Najib Razak arrives at the Kuala Lumpur High Court Complex February 18, 2021. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Datuk Seri Najib Razak arrives at the Kuala Lumpur High Court Complex February 18, 2021. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

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KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 18 — Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s corruption trial over more than RM2 billion of 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) had to be halted today, as a witness who was testifying in court has been informed that his friend has tested positive for Covid-19.

This is the second time in the past two weeks that concerns of the Covid-19 risk have caused disruptions to the trial.

Following a short break in trial proceedings this morning, deputy public prosecutor Ahmad Akram Gharib informed the High Court that the 10th prosecution witness Mohd Hazem Abd Rahman had during the break checked his mobile phone and read a text message from his friend who had just tested positive for Covid-19.

“The 10th prosecution witness and this friend of his had a meeting last Monday after the trial for about one hour in the same meeting room, but according to him, it was not that close, it’s about two metres. But he was in the same meeting room, more than one hour, less than two hours.

“Therefore, Yang Arif, I would seek Your Lordship’s instructions, direction, whether we want to continue with him today or we should stop the proceedings this morning,” Akram told the court.

Akram confirmed that Hazem’s status was unknown for now, noting that the meeting was three days ago.

Najib’s lead defence lawyer Tan Sri Muhammad Shafee Abdullah then said that Hazem would be considered to be the primary exposure to the person who had just tested positive, while the lawyers and officials in the same courtroom would be those who are in the secondary exposure group.

“I think we ought not to take the risk because the period of gestation, we don’t know...I think we can’t take the risk because there’s many of us, Yang Arif,” Shafee said, noting that it would be known by the next hearing date whether Hazem himself tests negative or positive for Covid-19.

Akram also noted that it would be difficult to arrange for another prosecution witness to attend trial today to testify on such a short notice.

High Court judge Collin Lawrence Sequerah noted the risks of continuing with trial, before deciding to adjourn the 1MDB trial and resume hearing the trial on the next scheduled date of May 3.

“I think a bit of risk continuing with the 10th prosecution witness, because we don’t know whether he’s also infected or whether asymptomatic,” the judge said, while also noting that the other option of calling in another witness would not be feasible as the prosecution said it would not be able to arrange for this.

While noting that today is the last day of trial in February for the 1MDB case and with the case only resuming in May, the judge nevertheless decided to stop proceedings due to the risk.

“I think it’s not prudent to take the risk of exposure. We simply do not know. I’m constrained to, I suppose, adjourn. Well, reluctant as I am, I think we’ll adjourn today’s proceedings,” the judge said.

“In any event, I’m sure he will go for a test, will you be able to inform the court, and also the defence team of the status,” the judge asked the prosecution.

Akram then confirmed the prosecution will provide updates on Hazem’s own Covid-19 test results: “I will inform the court as soon as possible.”

Last Wednesday (February 10), Hazem did not attend court and could not continue testifying in Najib’s 1MDB trial as he was ill with fever, with the judge directing him to undergo Covid-19 testing. He later tested negative and resumed testifying this Monday.

Prior to falling ill, Hazem testified on February 8 and February 9.

The judiciary has implemented a new set of standard operating procedures since January 27, 2021 as a precaution during the Covid-19 pandemic, including only permitting two persons — family members, friends or acquaintances — to accompany an accused person inside the courtroom, apart from lawyers from both sides and witnesses.

This means that the only other individuals present in the courtroom during Hazem’s testimony before the judge were court personnel, lawyers from the prosecution and defence, Najib himself and those accompanying him. The media follows 1MDB trial proceedings through a “live” video feed within the court complex, under the same set of SOPs.

Prior to Hazem finding out that his friend had tested positive, he had spent about an hour inside the courtroom being cross-examined by Najib’s lawyer Wan Aizuddin Wan Mohammed.

Najib’s 1MDB trial will only resume in May, as he is scheduled to attend the hearing of his joint trial with former 1MDB CEO Arul Kanda Kandasamy over the alleged tampering of the federal audit report on 1MDB next week (February 22 to 24) and March 8 to 11.

The Court of Appeal’s hearing for Najib’s appeal against his conviction and sentencing in the trial involving RM42 million of former 1MDB unit SRC International Sdn Bhd is meanwhile scheduled for April 5 to 8, April 12 to 15, April 19 to 22.

After that, Najib will be in the High Court in Kuala Lumpur from May until December this year for his 1MDB trial.

Since Najib’s 1MDB trial began on August 28, 2019, events linked to the Covid-19 pandemic including the movement control order (MCO) in 2020 had caused disruption to the trial, apart from Najib having to attend his other trials due to the need to ensure a fair trial.

For example, the 1MDB trial could not proceed on March 12, 2020 because Shafee and his entire legal team had to go into quarantine as his sister-in-law was a close contact of a person who had tested positive for Covid-19.

While Shafee later tested negative, trial dates from March 19 onwards were repeatedly postponed and rescheduled due to the MCO and various phases of the MCO, with the trial only resuming May 19 last year.

The trial was again postponed and did not proceed according to previously scheduled trial dates from October 5 to 8, as Najib was in voluntary 14-day self-quarantine at home following his September 27 return after assisting Barisan Nasional’s election campaign in Sabah.

The reintroduction of the conditional movement control order (CMCO) later resulted in the 1MDB trial being unable to proceed in October and November, with the trial subsequently also not proceeding in December due to Najib having to attend Dewan Rakyat sittings as the Pekan MP. The trial only resumed on January 5, 2021.

Matters related to Covid-19 had also resulted in a number of other court cases being postponed and rescheduled last year, including Najib’s trial with Arul Kanda and Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s corruption trial.

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