How fugitive financier Jho Low stays above the law
Malaysian businessman is wanted in the multi-billion dollar 1MDB money laundering scam but has so far managed to evade arrest and stay in business
Police and immigration authorities in Malaysia and Singapore are on the lookout for fugitive Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho, a reputed billionaire tycoon who is wanted in connection with a global corruption probe into 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state development fund created and overseen by former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Investigators believe the 37-year-old, better known as Jho Low, helped to orchestrate one of the world’s biggest ever financial scandals now under investigation by at least six countries including Singapore, Switzerland and the United States. Malaysia’s newly-elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad reopened a domestic probe into 1MDB as one of his first acts as premier.
Past bids to investigate 1MDB’s dealings were reportedly obstructed by Najib, who removed Malaysia’s then attorney general and sacked critics within his own party in 2015. The former premier was arrested and charged this month with abuse of power and criminal breach of trust for dealings at SRC International, a former 1MDB unit. Najib has since been released on bail.
The government’s renewed 1MDB pursuit recently saw a Malaysian police dragnet closing in on Low, who had until recently occupied multiple upscale Hong Kong apartments with his entourage, according to reports. He reportedly fled to Macau earlier this month before police could apprehend him in Hong Kong.
Soon after arriving in the former Portuguese enclave, Low departed yet again for an unknown destination. Though his exact whereabouts remain a mystery, authorities now believe Low has taken refuge in Saint Kitts and Nevis, an island nation in the West Indies where the wanted businessman is believed to own properties and hold citizenship.
Investigators from the US Department of Justice (DoJ) believe Low acted as an unofficial adviser to 1MDB and exercised “significant control” over its dealings. He is accused of leveraging elite business ties to help broker large deals for the fund, the proceeds of which were allegedly siphoned through shell companies in the Middle East, Seychelles, Caribbean and the US.
Jho reached out to authorities in Malaysia through an intermediary in June to volunteer his cooperation in ongoing investigations, reportedly offering to drop his claim to more than a billion dollars in assets in return for immunity from criminal prosecution. That offer was rejected by Mahathir on grounds of abiding by Malaysian law.
Malaysia’s immigration department believes Low is now travelling on a Saint Kitts and Nevis passport, which allows for visa-free travel to over 140 countries. Authorities cancelled his Malaysian passport in June in a bid to restrict his movements, though he has continued to elude capture despite an Interpol red notice in force requesting his arrest.
Under Interpol rules, national authorities are not obliged to execute a red notice warrant if they do not receive a direct request from the country seeking the subject of that notice. Low was purportedly free to recently leave Hong Kong for Macau because neither Malaysia nor Singapore had formally requested his arrest, The South China Morning Post reported.
Malaysia and Singapore, however, dispute those claims. Both nations say they have sought assistance for Low’s arrest from countries through Interpol. A representative for Singapore’s police recently told Bloomberg that Hong Kong authorities had declined a request to arrest Low in 2016, without elaborating on why the request was not acted upon.
The elusive magnate has registered businesses in Hong Kong which include Quinton Investments Limited, previously known as Jynwel Capital Limited, which was established in 2011. Despite Low’s fugitive status, reports indicate that his companies are operating as usual, with office lights on and staff entering and exiting the office premises.
Investigators believe Low may have now assumed an alias and had facial reconstruction surgery to alter his appearance, according to The Star newspaper, which days ago published several artist renditions of Low with altered features and hairstyles. Authorities in both Malaysia and Singapore are not reportedly in possession of any recent photographs of Low.
In March, Indonesian authorities seized a US$250 million luxury yacht belonging to the fugitive financier with assistance from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Prior to the seizure, the Cayman-registered vessel – thought to have been purchased with laundered 1MDB funds – had traversed remote areas of the globe in an attempt to evade authorities.
A spokesman for Low accused the DoJ’s seizure as being consistent with a “pattern of global overreach” that was “based on entirely unsupported claims of wrongdoing.” He has consistently maintained his innocence and previously described himself as a “victim of the crossfire of Malaysian politics” who had “no decision-making authority” at 1MDB.
Prior to becoming the subject of an international manhunt, the portly businessman was best known for his lavish spending, flamboyant lifestyle and celebrity ties. Low dated Australian supermodel Miranda Kerr, allegedly gifting her US$8.1 million worth of jewelry. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio also received fine art and gifts worth millions from the fugitive tycoon.
US investigations into 1MDB forced Kerr and DiCaprio to surrender those gifts to the DoJ. Both cooperated fully with US investigators and were not accused of any wrongdoing. DiCaprio starred in the blockbuster film “The Wolf of Wall Street” produced by Red Granite Pictures Inc, a production company co-owned by Riza Aziz, the former Malaysian premier’s stepson.
In March, the company paid US$60 million to the US DoJ in a civil forfeiture suit covering rights and interests claims to “The Wolf of Wall Street” and two other films believed to have been financed with money siphoned from 1MDB. Low allegedly consulted Riza prior to the establishment of the production company and the two were known to be friends.
Low’s ties to the family of former premier Najib don’t end there. US investigators believe US$4.5 billion was embezzled and laundered from 1MDB from 2009 to 2014, some of which landed in the ex-premier’s bank account. Though Najib staunchly denies any wrongdoing, Malaysia’s former first family is widely cited as the scheme’s major beneficiary.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal characterized Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor as a “political force and central actor” in the 1MDB scandal and the person responsible for helping to orchestrate Low’s involvement with the state fund after she learned of his business connections to Middle East royalty and prominent Persian Gulf families.
Rosmah became Low’s “champion” after he persuaded an Abu Dhabi state fund to invest in a Malaysian project for which Najib took credit, the WSJ report claims. The well-connected financer allegedly introduced Rosmah to Hollywood celebrities and created a shell company to mask her purchases of designer handbags and luxury goods using embezzled state funds.
“The wife had more of a picture than the husband,” according to a source quoted in the report who claimed former premier Najib was “only partly in the loop” and “focused on obtaining funds for political uses rather than personal spending.” Rosmah’s lawyers have denied the allegations and said the report is an attempt to defame their client.
“It was clear [Low] had special relationships with the leadership under [Saudi Arabia’s] King Abdullah and his family and also the monarchies of certain countries especially in the UAE,” Najib told local media group Malaysiakini in a recent interview when asked about his relationship with Low.
“It was with this context that Jho Low represented the Middle East partners and their dealings and partnerships with 1MDB,” he said, adding that he had long since ceased communications with the businessman.
The former premier’s personal bank account has recently been frozen by authorities. He has consistently denied any wrongdoing in relation to 1MDB and says he is a victim of “political vengeance.” Najib, along with his wife and stepson, have been rigorously interrogated by Malaysia’s Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) in recent weeks.
Najib, 64, now faces the prospect of a lengthy jail term if convicted when his case goes to trial in February. As police closed in on Low, it looked as if his days were numbered. Since fleeing Macau, however, authorities are again no closer to apprehending the man widely regarded as the real mastermind behind Malaysia’s infamous financial scandal.