Malaysia’s former prime minister, Najib Razak, who was convicted two years ago of participating in a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal, was headed for prison Tuesday to start serving a 12-year sentence after the nation’s highest court rejected his final appeal.
A five-judge federal court panel, headed by the nation’s chief justice, unanimously upheld Mr. Najib’s conviction on seven corruption counts after finding that his appeal was “devoid of any merits.”
The prospect of Mr. Najib, 69, going to prison concluded a stunning fall for the British-educated son of one prime minister and nephew of another who spent nearly his entire adult life in politics and held numerous cabinet posts.
“This is a historic moment in Malaysian politics,” said James Chin, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Tasmania and an expert on Malaysian politics. “This is the first time a prime minister, or an ex-prime minister, has been found guilty of corruption and is actually going to jail.”
With its decision, the high court clearly established its independence from politics and demonstrated that Malaysia is governed by the rule of law, at least in such a high-profile case.
Nicknamed the “Man of Steal” by critics, Mr. Najib was convicted two years ago on seven counts of abuse of power, breach of trust and money laundering for illegally receiving transfers of $9.8 million from SRC International, a former unit of the government investment fund, 1 Malaysia Development Berhad.
He faces dozens more charges in the scandal involving $4.5 billion that disappeared from the fund, commonly known as 1MDB, which he oversaw as both prime minister and finance minister.
Money stolen from the fund was traced by prosecutors to the purchases of a huge yacht and a Picasso painting, as well as an investment in the Hollywood blockbuster “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which was produced by Mr. Najib’s stepson. More than $700 million of the money ended up in Mr. Najib’s personal bank accounts.
The national scandal led to the ouster of his party, the United Malays National Organization, in elections four years ago, but the party eventually returned to power as part of a coalition.
Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition leader in Parliament, called Tuesday’s ruling a “momentous occasion for democracy and the rule of law” and noted that the criminal case was filed after Mr. Najib was voted out and a new government took over.
“I recognize the resoluteness and bravery of the judiciary to reach its decision based on facts and laws, and not succumb to the political influence of those in power, which we Malaysians experienced for decades,” he said.
Mr. Najib was prime minister from 2009 to 2018; the 1MDB scandal began emerging midway through his tenure. Yet for years, he managed to avoid accountability for his role, even continuing to serve in Parliament after his conviction.
Some analysts predicted that he had retained so much political influence that his conviction could be overturned on appeal, or that his allies in government could win dismissal of the charges.
The judges rejected numerous attempts by Mr. Najib over the past week to delay a ruling, including his filing of a last-minute motion to recuse the country’s chief justice, Maimun Tuan Mat, who headed the panel.
His defense maintained that Ms. Maimun, the country’s first female chief justice, could be biased because her husband had once posted a comment on social media critical of Mr. Najib.
Mr. Najib dismissed his lead lawyer in late July before the appeals hearing began last week and then sought an extension so that his new lawyer could prepare his defense. The court rejected the request, noting that the lawyer should not have taken the case if he was not prepared to argue it.
In the end, his lawyers did not present oral arguments in his defense, relying on the written appeal submitted earlier.
“It is our unanimous view that the evidence led during the trial points overwhelmingly to guilt on all seven charges,” the chief justice said. “These appeals are therefore unanimously dismissed and the conviction and sentence are affirmed.”
Mr. Najib left court in a black vehicle with a police escort. Malaysian news outlets reported that he was being taken to Kajang Prison near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s largest city.
In addition to his 12-year sentence, he was ordered to pay a fine of about $50 million.
During a 2018 search of three residences that Mr. Najib owned, the police seized more than 350 boxes and bags containing cash, jewelry and designer handbags estimated to be worth $273 million.
Mr. Najib has cast himself as a victim and blamed the elusive financier Jho Low, who helped siphon money from 1MDB and used his share to give extravagant gifts of jewelry and paintings to newfound celebrity friends.
With his court appeals at an end, Mr. Najib still has the option of seeking a pardon from Malaysia’s king.
Professor Chin, of the University of Tasmania, predicted that the ruling against Mr. Najib would prompt the government to call for elections as soon as October.
“The biggest winner is, of course, the Malaysian public,” he said. “They really wanted Najib to go to jail. The confidence people have toward the chief justice was reaffirmed by this ruling.”
On Sunday, Mr. Najib posted a despondent note on his Facebook page, perhaps recognizing that his final appeal was unlikely to succeed.
“Sometimes we feel that our efforts and kindness are in vain,” he wrote. “There are times when we feel overwhelmed by tests and trials. With slander and persecution. With a hope that ends in failure. With sincerity rewarded with betrayal. Sometimes we feel we are … alone.”