The United States indicated Thursday that hundreds of millions of dollars of assets recovered in a U.S. government settlement with a fugitive financier linked to Malaysia’s scandal-ridden state fund 1MDB will be returned to Malaysia.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) announced the settlement with Low Taek Jho (better known as Jho Low) and his family over assets valued at $700 million (2.925 billion ringgit) which it said were purchased using funds misappropriated from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
The settlement, along with previous forfeitures, has resulted in the recovery of more than $1 billion (about 4 billion ringgit).
Speaking in Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur, where he is on a visit, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David R. Stilwell said the assets recovered in the settlement, in effect, belonged to the Malaysian public.
“So that’s nearly four billion ringgit that has been returned to the rightful owners – the Malaysian people – and the U.S. is very happy to have been a part of that,” Stilwell said during a speech at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (Malaysia), written remarks of which were made available to BenarNews.
The assets were located in the United States, the United Kingdom and Switzerland, he said.
“Together with his family, Jho Low allegedly misappropriated funds from 1MDB and laundered these assets through financial institutions in several jurisdictions including the United States, Switzerland, Singapore and Luxembourg,” Stilwell said.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said the recovered assets should be returned to Malaysia.
“The assets were bought with Malaysian money. We have proof that it was Malaysian money and we will now make a claim to the American government,” he told reporters at an event in Johor.
DoJ spokesman Peter Carr, when contacted, did not provide details about the process of returning the assets to Malaysia.
“The money will be returned for benefit of people harmed by the corruption,” he told BenarNews. “Last May, the United States returned nearly $200 million to the Malaysian authorities to assist Malaysia in addressing the financial debts and consequences caused by the 1MDB.”
In a news release on Wednesday, the DoJ said as part of the settlement, $15 million (62.67 million ringgit) from the recovered assets would be released to Low’s attorneys to pay legal fees.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is one of those attorneys, issued a statement praising the U.S. government and Low for cooperating in negotiating what he called a historic resolution.
“It is one of the largest civil forfeiture settlements in U.S. history represents the voluntary return of each and every asset claimed by the DOJ, thus resolving this litigation in its entirety without admission of wrongdoing or fault by the government,” he said in the statement.
The Justice Department said “several civil forfeiture complaints arising out of the 1MDB criminal conspiracy remain pending against assets associated with other alleged co-conspirators,” without going into detail.
Low faces criminal charges in Malaysia and the United States for his role in allegedly embezzling billions of dollars from 1MDB through his relationship with former Prime Minister Najib Razak.
The financier, who fled Malaysia and is the subject of a manhunt, posted a statement on his website saying many of the allegations against him have originated from blog posts, improper leaks from within government agencies around the world, or unproven allegations filed in court, “where I have never been afforded an opportunity to set the record straight."
“I will continue to fight the broad, sweeping, unproven, biased and politically motivated allegations against me, and I am confident that as the facts come to light, the truth will be revealed,” he said.
Malaysian and U.S. prosecutors allege that at least $4.5 billion (18.8 billion ringgit) was stolen and diverted through acquisitions of real estate, artwork and luxury properties by Najib and his associates, including Low. The DoJ described 1MDB as the “worst kleptocracy scandal in recent times.”
Among those items was a luxury yacht, “Equanimity” that authorities allege Low purchased for $250 million (1 billion ringgit) using 1MDB funds.
The Indonesian government seized the yacht in 2018 and turned it over to the Malaysia government which sold it for $126 million (514 million ringgit) in April 2019.
Najib, who prosecutors allege misappropriated billions from 1MDB, is standing trial in two separate Kuala Lumpur courts. He could face additional trials as well on a total of 43 criminal charges linked to 1MDB, the state development fund he created in 2009 ostensibly to boost the nation’s economy through investment.