The authorities in Malaysia have halved the sentence of Najib Razak, a former prime minister convicted of stealing millions of dollars from a government fund, a move that has triggered outrage in the country.
The leniency for Mr. Najib comes after weeks of speculation in Malaysia that he might be pardoned by King Sultan Abdullah, whose tenure under Malaysia’s unique rotational monarchy ended on Tuesday. But many analysts had said it was unlikely that Mr. Najib, who has served only 17 months of his term, would receive any form of clemency because he is still facing three continuing criminal cases related to what is known as the 1MDB scandal.
On Friday, Malaysia’s Pardons Board said that Mr. Najib, who began a 12-year sentence in 2022, will instead be released in August 2028 and his fine reduced to $11 million, a quarter of the previous fine. But according to Malaysian law, he could be released even earlier, in August 2026, if he applies for parole after serving half of his term.
The announcement spurred a wave of anger over what many Malaysians said was a culture of impunity among the country’s top officials. Much of the money that disappeared from the 1MDB fund has yet to be recovered. In September, a court suddenly dismissed 47 embezzlement charges filed against Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the deputy prime minister.
The decision is likely to reignite questions about the rule of law in Malaysia. It is also likely to increase the public’s disillusionment with Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who entered office on an anti-corruption platform but who critics say has made too many compromises, like the alliance with Mr. Ahmad, to stay in power.
Wong Chin Huat, a professor in governance at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia, an independent think tank in Malaysia, said the lack of transparency and accountability in Mr. Najib’s case was “undermining public confidence in our justice system and political system, and international businesses’ confidence in Malaysia’s investment environment.”
Mr. Wong also questioned whether Mr. Najib deserved this leniency, adding: “Has he even admitted his guilt and offered an apology?”
Other analysts saw the decision as a carefully calibrated compromise that would allow both the pro-Najib and anti-Najib camps to feel that they had notched a win.
“As long as it is neither a full pardon nor a full sentence, both camps can draw some comfort from the fact that it could be worse,” said Francis E. Hutchinson, the coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Program at the Singapore-based ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
As such, Mr. Hutchinson said, any fallout should be limited as long as Mr. Najib’s subsequent legal cases were allowed to proceed.
The first allegations against Mr. Najib appeared in news reports nearly a decade ago. Malaysians — though long accustomed to graft by high-ranking officials and politicians — were shocked to learn that the premier had funneled $700 million from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad fund, or 1MDB, a government investment fund, to his personal bank accounts.
Infuriated citizens took to the streets to demand Mr. Najib’s resignation. The scandal also upended politics in the 2018 election when voters cast Mr. Najib out of office — the first time in Malaysia’s independent history that his political party, the United Malays National Organization, or U.M.N.O., had lost in national elections.
The U.S. Department of Justice later found that Mr. Najib and a mysterious tycoon, Jho Low, had diverted $4.5 billion from the fund to finance an American film company that produced “The Wolf on Wall Street”; purchase a superyacht; and support the lavish lifestyles of Mr. Najib, Mr. Low, and Mr. Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor.
In 2017, the then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the 1MDB case “kleptocracy at its worst.”
In 2020, Mr. Najib was found guilty on seven counts of corruption. It was a watershed moment in Malaysian politics; no top leader had ever been convicted before, and the courts were lauded for establishing their independence from politics. He started serving his prison sentence in August 2022 after his appeals failed.
Despite Mr. Najib’s conviction, he is still influential within U.M.N.O., whose members now make up part of Mr. Anwar’s government. The party retains considerable support among ethnic Malays, the majority, who benefited during Mr. Najib’s nine-year rule and whom Mr. Anwar is now trying to court.
The United Malays National Organization has long said that the case against Mr. Najib was politically motivated, and his supporters have always expressed hope that he would get out of prison and revive his political career.