By Mei Mei Chu and A. Ananthalakshmi
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysia’s former first lady Rosmah Mansor collected hundreds of expensive Hermes Birkin handbags and diamond jewelry when her husband Najib Razak was prime minister.
Rosmah now faces the prospect of joining him in jail for corruption after the Kuala Lumpur High Court sentenced her to 10 years in jail and a record $216 million fine for soliciting and accepting bribes to help a company win a contract from her husband’s administration.
Rosmah, 70, has been granted bail but could be put behind bars if she loses two high court appeals, ending her multi-million dollar shopping spree.
Seen as a powerful figure behind Najib, the former first lady is widely despised in Malaysia for her extravagant lifestyle and penchant for Birkin bags.
After Najib’s surprise defeat in the 2018 elections, after voters were disgusted by the multi-billion state fund corruption scandal, police found 12,000 personal jewelry, 567 luxury bags, 423 watches and $26 million in cash. 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
Najib began a 12-year prison sentence last week after losing an appeal in the first of several 1MDB cases against him. He has consistently denied any wrongdoing.
Rosmah answered questions about her outsized role in Najib’s administration and the source of her wealth.
Prosecutor Gopal Sri Ram said at the start of Rosmah’s 2020 trial for bribery in connection with a $279 million solar supply contract: “He held no official position. But he had significant influence because of his outrageous nature.”
Rosmah considered these allegations as character assassination and pleaded not guilty to all the charges brought against her.
Prosecutors said Rosmah demanded 187.5 million ringgit ($41.85 million) in bribes and received 6.5 million ringgit from an official of the company that won the solar project. Some of it is said to have been delivered to the couple’s residence in two bags filled with cash.
Rosmah also faces charges of money laundering and tax evasion in a separate case.
‘Can I give you some advice?’
In 2009, Singapore’s founder and then minister-mentor Lee Kuan Yew requested a meeting with Rosmah during an official visit to Malaysia, reportedly saying it was necessary to understand the pair “working as a team”.
In a recording released by investigators in 2016, Malaysians were given an insight into the dynamic of the first couple, when an agitated Rosmah was heard telling Najib how she would deal with the 1MDB bribery scandal swirling around her.
“Can I give you some advice? Honey, you’re the prime minister and you should be in charge, no one else?” he says before adding, “There are people around you who want to give you advice.”
He then explained to Najib how to deal with his aides and foreign officials involved in the scandal.
Rosmah has not been charged with more than 1MDB, but US and Malaysian investigators say she bought expensive jewelry from $4.5 billion in stolen funds, including a $27 million pink diamond necklace.
The necklace was made for him by Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho, better known as Jho Low, who investigators say was close to Najib and at the center of the 1MDB scandal. Low became a fugitive and his whereabouts are unknown.
Najib said that Riza Aziz, Rosmah’s son from her first marriage, introduced him to Cho Lou. Rosmah married Najib in 1987, a second marriage for both of them.
Investigators say that Reza used some of the stolen 1MDB money to finance the 2013 Hollywood film The Wolf of Wall Street. Raza later agreed with US and Malaysian investigators to return some of the assets from the stolen 1MDB funds, and the case against him in Malaysia was dropped.
CONTINUATION OF APPEARANCES
Rosmah became even more furious when details of the scale of the 1MDB scandal were revealed. The Wall Street Journal reported that he spent at least $6 million between 2008 and 2015 on shopping shows in London, New York and elsewhere.
Despite her lavish tastes, Rosmah came from humble beginnings. Rosmah wrote in her 2013 autobiography that she faced financial difficulties as a student and earned a meager salary in her first job at an agricultural bank.
Given the importance she attaches to accessories, Rosmah has inevitably been compared to former Philippine first lady Imelda Marco, who left behind 1,200 pairs of shoes when her husband was overthrown in 1986.
Rosmah said, “As a woman and a leader’s wife, I have to look neat and tidy and take care of my appearance. It is also a shame for Malaysians that other countries make fun of the untidy wife of Malaysia’s prime minister.” defends his tastes in his biography.
($1 = 4.4800 ringgit)
(Reporting by Mei Mei Chu and A. Ananthalakshmi; Additional reporting by Rosanna Latif; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)
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