WITH an unexpected twist of fate, Low Taek Jho (often called Jho Low) has been granted asylum by an unknown country on the grounds of potential human rights violations and political prosecution, if in the event he is sent back to face trial in Malaysia. The asylum status was given in August 2019 in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and European Convention on Human Rights.
Jho Low, together with former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak, have allegedly stolen billions of dollars and illicitly channelled them into private accounts or via various companies through 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) for personal gratification and luxurious lifestyles. Jho Low was named as one of the masterminds for the illicit fund transfers.
The fugitive businessman has been dodging warrants of arrest from several countries since the grand corruption scandal of the 1MDB broke out. The United States Department of Justice (DoJ) said a total of RM18.9 billion has been embezzled from 1MDB, utilising the global financial system. There are at least seven countries probing a vast web of illegal financial transactions stretching from Swiss banks to island tax havens to the heart of Southeast Asia.
These criminal investigations include 104 million Swiss francs (RM433 million) in illicit profits confiscated by Swiss bank regulator Finma from three banks over alleged involvement in laundering assets linked to 1MDB, investigation into Credit Suisse involving US$250 million(RM1 billion), Avestra Asset Management involving AU$2.32 billion (RM6.6 billion), Singapore where SG$250 million (RM760 million) assets were seized out of which SG$120 million belongs to Jho Low and his family, and other illicit financial transfers in Hong Kong, Luxembourg, Seychelles, UAE and the United Kingdom.
Jho Low has claimed that he will not have a fair trial in Malaysia. However, US ambassador to Malaysia Kamala Shirin Lakhdhir has offered Jho Low the chance to prove his innocence in an American court if he does not want to return home to Malaysia.
What is even more ironic is that the recent court settlement with the DoJ led to an agreement with Jho Low, where he agreed to forfeit US$1 billion worth of assets that were allegedly tied to the multi-billion-dollar 1MDB grand corruption scandal.
Some of these allegedly ill-gotten assets include a private jet, luxurious houses situated at Beverly Hills, California, New York’s Soho district and Mayfair in the UK, shares, rights and interests in Electrum Group, FW Sports Investments, EMI Music Publishing, the Viceroy Group and partial ownership of the Viceroy L’Ermitage Beverly Hills and its business assets.
In response, Jho Low claimed that the DoJ agreement was “a landmark comprehensive, global settlement ... which fully and forever resolves in their entirety each of the US government’s civil, criminal, and administrative actions or proceedings relating to the defendant assets at issue in the Central District of California”.
He stressed: “Importantly, the agreement does not constitute an admission of guilt, liability or any form of wrongdoing by me or the asset owners. We believe all parties consider this resolution, which is subject to final court approval, to be a successful and satisfactory result.” Jho Low seemingly comes out looking squeaky clean.
Even more outrageous is that part of the settlement fund, allegedly stolen from 1MDB, goes to pay for Jho Low’s legal fees at a whooping US$15 million. His lawyers were none other than Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey and head of US President Donald Trump’s transition team, and renowned Kobre and Kim, a law firm that specialises in disputes and investigations involving international fraud.
However, US$700 million is still a far cry from the DoJ estimates of the total of US$4.5 billion that was misappropriated between 2009 and 2014.
While pending criminal cases against the illusive Jho Low in the US will continue – for conspiring to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and for conspiring to make and conceal “foreign and conduit” campaign contributions in the 2012 US presidential elections – Low, for now, remains unscathed from the grand corruption charges.
Meanwhile in Malaysia, efforts are still being made to recuperate the stolen 1MDB funds and the authorities had issued a warrant of arrest for Jho Low and his accomplices. Jho Low faces criminal charges in Malaysia, such as under Section 4(1)(a) of the Anti-Money Laundering and Anti-Terrorism Financing Act 2001 (AMLA). There are five offences which involved him allegedly receiving US$1.03 billion from 1MDB through his company Good Star Ltd.
He also has two other joint charges with Tan Kim Loong, 40, under the same Act involving US$1.26 million. The hunt for Jho Low continues with the Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Abdul Hamid Bador saying that police hope to bring him back by the end of the year to help in the 1MDB investigations.
Malaysians are getting angry and impatient with the slow justice system in resolving 1MDB and its related cases. It gets more discerning when the court trial faces delay upon delay including accommodating Najib’s absence from court due to his eyesore only to have him appear in Tanjung Piai during the by-election nomination day.
It is also unfortunate that the country which offered asylum to Jho Low has set a bad precedence. It sends the wrong signal that Jho Low or any criminal, organised or otherwise, involved in fraud, money laundering, can outright cry wolf about facing possible political persecution and be able to get away scot free from their crimes, if offered asylum.
The system for asylum seekers has to distinguished between criminals, especially those who are already on the wanted list of several countries, and genuine political asylum seekers who face real persecution due to their beliefs, differing ideas, ethnicity or otherwise.
State governments have an international duty and responsibility to combat corruption collectively as it threatens the integrity of global trade, distorts resource allocation, destroys public trust and undermines the rule of law.
When the world is cognisant of the kleptocratic scandal of 1MDB and the players involved, they must take the moral high ground and bring them to justice.