Former Malaysia Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin arrives to give a statement to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) in Putrajaya, Malaysia March 9, 2023. REUTERS/Hasnoor Hussain
By Rozanna Latiff
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) -Former Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin was charged on Friday with abuse of power and money laundering over projects launched under his premiership, accusations that he said were politically motivated.
The charges come just three months after Muhyiddin lost a closely fought and divisive general election to Anwar Ibrahim, and are likely to increase political tension in Malaysia ahead of regional polls this year.
Muhyiddin, who led the country for 17 months between 2020 and 2021, becomes the second Malaysian leader to be charged with crimes after losing power.
At a Kuala Lumpur sessions court, the prosecution alleged that Muhyiddin abused his position as prime minister to receive bribes of 232.5 million ringgit ($51.44 million) in a bank account belonging to his party, Bersatu.
The former premier and opposition leader was charged with four counts of abuse of power and two counts of money laundering.
Muhyiddin, 75, pleaded not guilty to all six charges and said the accusations were “organised political persecution”.
“Not a single cent of the people’s money went into my own pocket during my tenure as prime minister,” Muhyiddin told reporters after being granted bail.
The former premier faces up to 20 years in jail if found guilty. He would also be subject to a heavy financial penalty.
The case will be heard next on May 26. Muhyiddin said he will face an additional charge of abuse of power on Monday.
The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission denied the accusations of political motivation and interference in its probe involving Muhyiddin.
Muhyiddin and his party have faced graft investigations since losing the national election in November, with the party’s bank accounts frozen by the anti-graft body and two leaders charged with bribery.
The former premier has also been banned from leaving the country.
Prime Minister Anwar, who has long vowed to undertake reforms to improve governance and fight corruption that has long plagued Malaysia, has also dismissed accusations that the charges against Muhyiddin are politically motivated. Anwar said he has not interfered in investigations.
The allegations against Muhyiddin come ahead of crucial regional elections to be held in six states by mid-year, with his coalition expected to pose a strong challenge to Anwar’s alliance.
The state polls are seen as the first big test for Anwar, who failed to win a simple majority on his own in the national election last year.
Muhyiddin leads a conservative, ethnic-Malay, Muslim alliance that has portrayed itself to be clean of corruption, and won support from the country’s majority Malays in last year’s election.
Anwar runs a progressive, multi-ethnic bloc but has faced criticism for joining hands with the corruption-tainted United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party to form a government.
The UMNO was defeated in 2018 elections due to widespread graft allegations, bringing to an end an uninterrupted rule by a party that had governed Malaysia for more than 60 years since independence.
UMNO’s former leader and ex-prime minister, Najib Razak, is serving a jail term for graft related to the multi-billion dollar corruption scandal at state fund 1MDB. Anwar’s deputy and current UMNO leader, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, also faces graft charges.
Anwar himself served jail time for corruption and sodomy before he became prime minister, charges he insists were politically motivated and designed to keep him from power.