Malaysia’s former prime minister who led during the height of the pandemic has been charged with corruption – a move that ratchets up already bitter political tensions.
Muhyiddin Yassin, 75, was arrested just months after losing an election to PM Anwar Ibrahim in November.
The former PM has been accused of bribery and money laundering through his government’s Covid spending fund.
He rejects the allegations, which his supporters say are politically driven.
The criminal case aimed at the leader of the conservative opposition alliance comes ahead of crucial state elections in July.
Mr Muhyiddin is now the second former Malaysian prime minister to face corruption charges, after Najib Razak was jailed to 12 years for corruption involving the state’s 1MDB investment firm.
Now the leader of a Malay-ethnic, Muslim alliance, Mr Muhyiddin ran the country from 2020 to 2021 for 17 months.
He has a long-time rivalry with current PM Anwar. The two have a history of political betrayals that has fuelled a long enmity.
Multiple charges of bribery and money laundering were laid against the former leader in a Kuala Lumpur court on Friday.
Prosecutors have accused him of sourcing $51m (£42m) in bribes from companies who hoped to benefit from an emergency government spending programme. They have also alleged two instances of money laundering through the fund.
If convicted he faces 20 years in prison. Mr Muhyiddin entered a not guilty plea in court on Friday and was released on bail – although his passport was withheld.
The opposition leader was charged just a day appearing at an anti-corruption watchdog’s probe into the allegations.
The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission launched the probe in February, freezing his party’s bank accounts. Two former party leaders have also been arrested on corruption charges.
The incident further fuels tensions in Malaysian politics.
Mr Muhyiddin’s conservative ethnic-Malay, Muslim alliance was most popular among the country’s majority Malay voter population in November’s election.
But PM Anwar Ibrahim eventually secured power with a progressive, multi-ethnic coalition – after joining up with the once all-powerful but now disgraced United Malays National Organisation party (UMNO) which has been tainted by corruption. Anwar’s deputy, the current UMNO leader, is also facing corruption charges.
July’s state elections are being widely seen as a test of support for the current prime minister.
That has added to the strong belief among many of Mr Muhyiddin’s supporters that his prosecution is political.
The case is being viewed by many Malaysians through the prism of intense rivalries which have shaken the country’s politics since the historic defeat five years ago of the once unbeatable UMNO.
The country has seen five different prime ministers in as many years – a trial of a senior figure is inevitably viewed as a political event, observers say.