Malaysia's ex-leader Najib Razak was hit with 25 new charges of money laundering and abuse of power linked to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) mega-scandal Thursday, including allegations hundreds of millions of dollars were transferred to his personal bank account.
As hundreds of banner-waving supporters gathered outside the Kuala Lumpur court, Najib pleaded not guilty to all counts, which represented the most serious in a string of charges he has faced over the alleged looting of state fund 1MDB.
Najib, whose shock election defeat in May ended his coalition's six-decade stranglehold on power in Malaysia, is accused of abusing his position to receive funds totalling 2.3 billion ringgit (US$555 million) between 2011 and 2014.
The suspicious transfers to his accounts were a key chapter in the scandal, and Najib had previously insisted they were a donation from Saudi royalty - an explanation that was widely derided.
Allegations that Najib and his cronies pilfered huge sums from 1MDB and spent them on everything from high-end real estate to artwork were a major factor in the defeat of his long-ruling coalition to a reformist alliance headed by Mahathir Mohamad.
After being charged Thursday, Najib gave a defiant press conference outside court: "I pray I will clear my name. I hope the rule of law exists in this country.
"We shall fight till the end and God will guide us all along the path of truth," he added, as his supporters cheered. He was released after agreeing to post bail of 3.5 million ringgit (US$845,488).
Mahathir, 93, who is in his second stint as premier after coming out of retirement to take on scandal-mired Najib, has ramped up probes in the 1MDB scandal and vowed to have the ex-leader prosecuted.
The raft of charges filed Thursday accused Najib of receiving vast amounts of money in a complex series of transactions. Many of the transfers happened ahead of a hotly contested national election in 2013, which Najib's coalition won comfortably.
Najib was first charged over 1MDB in July and August, over allegations he pocketed money from a former unit of the fund, but the latest counts are the most significant yet as they relate to a key chapter in the saga.
For each count of abuse of power, Najib faces up to 20 years in prison and for each count of money laundering, he faces up to five years.
When reports surfaced in 2015 that huge sums from 1MDB flowed into Najib's bank accounts ahead of the poll, it dramatically ratcheted up pressure on the leader and his inner circle over the scandal.
As pressure mounted, Najib lurched sharply to the right, sacking senior figures in his coalition who dared criticise him and jailing political opponents.
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.
1MDB was set up in 2009 and overseen by Najib, with the purported aim of promoting economic development in Malaysia, but accusations quickly mounted that it was a vehicle for the leader and his cronies to loot state coffers.
The US Department of Justice, which is seeking to recover assets allegedly bought with stolen 1MDB money, estimates that US$4.5 billion in total was looted from the fund.
Najib and his luxury-loving wife Rosmah Mansor became hated figures, symbols of the rot in a corrupt elite that had ruled Malaysia uninterrupted since independence from Britain in 1957.
A political blueblood whose father and uncle were both prime ministers, Najib's defeat was a shock that almost no pundit predicted as his ruling National Front (Barisan Nasional) coalition appeared to have a firm grip on power although accused of widespread electoral fraud. - AFP