KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim urged calm on Monday as he defended a move to reduce the jail sentence for disgraced former leader Najib Razak, amid a growing backlash from critics who said the decision could jeopardise anti-corruption efforts.

A pardons board chaired by Malaysia’s king before he ended his reign last week halved a 12-year jail sentence and cut fines for Najib, who is imprisoned for graft and money laundering related to the scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). The board did not give a reason for its decision.

Najib has consistently denied wrongdoing. His family has said he was disappointed by the ruling, having hoped for a full pardon and immediate release.

The sentence reduction comes amid accusations that the premier is backsliding on promised reforms, after prosecutors last year dropped corruption cases against Najib and other leaders linked to the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), which partnered with Anwar to form a government in November 2022.

Anwar said on Monday the king’s decision to commute Najib’s sentence was final and that the monarch was not obliged to provide an explanation, adding that it was “a matter of compassion”.

“We understand that people have strong views. So, we give a little leeway but after explanations are provided, it should stop,” Anwar said at a gathering of civil servants.

Anwar also admitted submitting Najib’s application for a royal pardon to the board for discussion, though he denied doing so under pressure from UMNO.

“I said as soon as I receive any appeal, I requested that the pardons board discuss it,” he said.

Malaysia’s king plays a ceremonial role but the monarch can grant clemency to convicted persons under discretionary powers granted by the federal constitution.

Decisions made by the country’s royals are rarely challenged. Negative remarks about the monarchy can be prosecuted under a colonial-era Sedition Act, which has been used against people who criticise the royals on social media.

Latheefa Koya, the former chief of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), described the sentence reduction for Najib as “a bitter blow” to the agency and its officers who investigated 1MDB.

“And this reduction of sentence comes as MACC is still trying to recover 1MDB monies overseas… Those other countries are carefully watching – will they cooperate now?” she said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Ramkarpal Singh, a former deputy law minister from the Democratic Action Party, part of Anwar’s ruling coalition, called on the pardons board to disclose its reasons for commuting Najib’s sentence.

“The efforts of the government in combating corruption have been seriously undermined by the developments in Najib’s case as the seriousness of his offence is known the world over,” he said in a statement on Saturday.

About $4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB in a globe-spanning scheme, with about $1 billion flowing into the personal accounts of Najib, Malaysian and U.S. investigators have said. Najib remains on trial for corruption in several other 1MDB-linked cases.

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff and Danial Azhar)

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