Malaysia ex-PM Najib's biggest 1MDB trial to begin

Najib Razak and his cronies are accused of pilfering massive sums from the 1MDB state fund

Malaysian ex-leader Najib Razak's most significant 1MDB trial begins Wednesday, centring on allegations that hundreds of millions of dollars linked to the state fund ended up in his bank account.

Claims that Najib and his cronies pilfered massive sums from the fund and spent it on everything from real estate to artwork contributed to the defeat of his long-ruling coalition to a reformist alliance.

After losing power last year, Najib was arrested and hit with dozens of charges related to 1MDB.

He is expected to face several trials, with the first having started in April.

Wednesday's will be the biggest, with Najib facing 21 counts of money-laundering and four of abuse of power, including allegations that 2.28 billion ringgit ($540 million) was funnelled to his account in transfers from overseas banks.

The 66-year-old, who is free on bail, has denied all the charges.

The case relates to a crucial part of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad saga.

When reports surfaced that huge sums linked to the fund had flowed into Najib's bank account, it dramatically ratcheted up pressure on the leader and his inner circle.

The attorney-general later cleared Najib of any wrongdoing, saying the money was a personal donation from the Saudi royal family, and closed down domestic investigations.

As allegations surrounding the fund multiplied, Najib became increasingly authoritarian, jailing political opponents and introducing laws that critics said were aimed at stifling dissent.

Prosecutors plan to call about 60 witnesses in a trial that is likely to be lengthy and complex.

But Najib's lawyers have complained they have not had sufficient time to prepare for such a major trial as the first case is still ongoing.

"Where is the concept of a fair trial?" chief lawyer Muhammad Shafee Abdullah told AFP. "It is like going into a boxing ring with one hand tied."

The new government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Najib's mentor-turned-nemesis, came to power partly on a pledge to probe 1MDB and has been keen to push ahead with the cases against the toppled leader.

"Politically (the government) has to get the 1MDB trials going. They made a promise that Najib will be in jail once they get into power," James Chin, a Malaysia expert from the University of Tasmania, told AFP.

"Nothing has happened to him."

Najib's first trial is over claims that money was stolen from a former 1MDB unit, but the complex proceedings have moved slowly.