Indonesia, in a surprising move on Wednesday (Feb 28), confiscated a luxury yacht off the coast of Teluk Benoa on the island of Bali. The 300-foot luxury superyacht – The Equanimity – was worth at least US$250 million, at least that’s the price tag valued by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Registered in the Cayman Islands, the yacht is believed to belong to notorious Jho Low.
When the Indonesian authorities made the move to seize the yacht, four U.S. “chief investigators” were present, suggesting it was a joint-operation between U.S. authorities and Indonesia police. Jho Low (fullname: Low Taek Jho), however, was not among those on board the yacht, which was built by Oceano and won the prize for prize for “Best in Show” at the Monaco Yacht Show in 2014.
Agung Setya, director of economic and special crimes at the Indonesia’s criminal investigation bureau, said – “We have been inspecting the 34 crew since yesterday and now we are taking action since we have received approval from the court to seize the boat. I have been told by the U.S. Department of Justice that this vessel is among the assets resulting from criminal activity.”
Mr. Agung was, of course, referring to the infamous 1MDB scandal. The Equanimity, which among others fitted with a helicopter landing pad, an on-board gymnasium, a cinema, a massage room, an experiential shower and a plunge pool, was among some assets being sought by the U.S.-DOJ in its investigation over money laundering involving 1MDB.
1MDB, which has been classified as a “Ponzi Scheme” by the Swiss Attorney General is not any common thievery. 1MDB is the world’s biggest financial scandal. In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice acknowledges the 1MDB represents the largest action brought under the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, involving stolen money of more than US$4.5 billion.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was the Chairman of 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Berhad), has denied any involvement in the scandal although he was caught with his hand in the cookie jar – a whopping US$681 million in his private banking accounts. Instead, Mr. Najib has claimed that the money was donations from Saudi royal family, a claim that could not be substantiated.
Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, was also exposed to have had purchased a 22-carat pink diamond necklace – worth a stunning US$27.3 million – using money siphoned from 1MDB. According to U.S.-DOJ investigations, Jho Low had arranged for jewellery designer Lorraine Schwartz (also known as “Jewish Queen of Oscar Bling”) for the pink diamond on June 2, 2013.
Other 1MDB-linked assets which were reported to have been seized by the U.S.-DOJ include Jho Low’s Bombardier Global 5000 jet in Singapore, jewellery worth millions of dollars gifted to celebrities Australian Miranda Kerr and Taiwanese Elvia Hsiao, and several properties in New York, artwork, film rights and a US$107 million interest in EMI Music Publishing.
In August 2017, the U.S.-DOJ asked for a stay on its civil lawsuits seeking to seize more than US$1.7 billion in assets allegedly bought with stolen 1MDB funds because it was conducting a related criminal probe. One of those assets is believed to be Jho Low’s luxury yacht “The Equanimity.” The U.S. lawsuits said Low used proceeds diverted from 1MDB to procure Equanimity.
Jho Low has been spending most of his time as fugitive aboard “The Equanimity” yacht, travelling around the world to avoid being arrested. Besides staying temporary at luxurious Peninsula Hotel in Shanghai, Jho Low was reportedly cruised the seas of Southeast Asia, making stops in Cambodia, Thailand, Taiwan, Bali and some of Indonesia’s tiniest islands.
The Malaysian fugitive was reportedly warned against returning to Malaysia as it would create political nightmares to Najib Razak as the premier struggles to maintain his power. But the confiscation of Jho Low’s luxury means the chickens could finally come home to roost. It appears that the Government of Malaysia was deliberately kept in the dark about the Indonesia-U.S. operation.
Without “The Equanimity” yacht, arguably Low’s only mode of transport to evade authorities, it could be a matter of time before the fugitive is finally apprehended. He can run but he can’t hide, not without his yacht. The burning question is: why did Indonesia and United States decide to launch the operation now, when Najib Razak is about to call a snap General Election?
For months, the U.S.-DOJ has put the 1MDB investigations in cold storage. As Mr. Najib was busy attacking Robert Kuok, Malaysia’s richest man worth US$15.6 billion, to divert attention from 1MDB scandal and public anger arising from escalating cost of living, suddenly the Indonesia-United States sprang into action in a special operation which started a week ago.
It’s not hard to understand why the United States and Indonesia kept the operation secret. In Oct, 2017, despite reports that Jho Low’s yacht docked in Aceh, Malaysia Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi denied Kuala Lumpur has ever received such information – suggesting internal cover-up at the highest level and that Malaysia government wasn’t interested at all to seize Low’s yacht.
Interestingly, it seems that despite pledging US$20 billion investment in what many believed was bribes to Trump administration during Prime Minister Najib’s visit to the White House in September, 2017, the deal didn’t take off as it should be. Najib’s promise to help Trump’s MAGA (Make America Great Again) was nothing but empty promises, as the U.S. president would later find out.
That explains why 2 months later, Trump deliberately pretended he didn’t see Najib, his supposedly golf buddy, during a dinner at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Manila, Philippines. It’s no coincidence 4 months later today; Jho Low’s yacht has been finally seized, thanks to the secret joint-operation between the U.S. and Indonesia.
Despite public perception, or lack of understanding, the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI actually operate under the president’s authority, as set forth in Article II of the Constitution. In a nutshell, President Trump has a “constitutional authority to tell the Justice Department who to investigate and who not to investigate”. But would not that be “obstruction of justice”?
Well, while a U.S. president can direct an investigation to start or cease, it cannot be for corrupt purposes as it would then become obstruction of justice. So, technically, even if it’s an open secret that Najib’s visit to the White House was to bribe Trump administration, Donald Trump as an individual didn’t receive any kickbacks. Najib tried to bribe the U.S. government, not Donald Trump.
That’s why Najib openly declared that his purpose was to make America great again. He had hoped President Trump would direct the U.S.-DOJ investigation into 1MDB money laundering be closed. Trump could do that, and it’s perfectly legal. Previous presidents – Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt – had set the precedents. But the Trump refused to do that.
Of course, if the U.S. president has the power to tell the U.S.-DOJ who to investigate and who not to investigate, obviously Trump has the authority to tell the Justice Department to speed up the existing investigation on 1MDB scandal. As a matter of fact, it’s hard to reject Trump’s command because the 1MDB had used the U.S. financial system to launder billions of dollars of dirty money.
Hence, in the name of national security, nobody dares argued with President Trump when the order to expedite the 1MDB investigations was given. As head of state, however, Najib Razak is untouchable, for now. But it’s a totally different story for Jho Low. Mr. Low doesn’t enjoy any diplomatic immunity whatsoever, therefore, can be arrested anytime and anywhere.
By confiscating Jho Low’s yacht, the U.S.-DOJ could be sending a message to Najib regime that Trump administration isn’t interested in only civil lawsuits but also criminal charges at the same time. They could also preparing for an eventuality Jho Low wanted to strike a deal with the U.S. authorities – giving up his boss Najib Razak in exchange for lighter sentence or even freedom.
In the event Najib loses the coming 14th General Election, he would also lose his privilege as the head of state, thus losing his immunity from possible prosecution on American soil. Trump administration could request extradition of Mr. Najib to United States. Both U.S. and Malaysia have a 1995 extradition treaty to combat international criminal activity, such as drug trafficking, terrorism and money laundering.
While the 1MDB scandal fits into money laundering category, it was initially investigated under civil lawsuits. Now, do you understand why the U.S.-DOJ asked for a stay on its civil lawsuits while conducting a criminal probe on 1MDB as well? Without criminal lawsuits, neither Jho Low nor Najib Razak can be extradited to the U.S. to face justice. In the year of the dog, Najib is toast!
– Finance Twitter