Malaysia on Monday put on the auction block a U.S. $250-million superyacht, which was seized from fugitive financier Jho Low as part of an international investigation into Malaysia’s 1MDB graft scandal, a government lawyer said.
The first sale of a major asset linked to 1MDB began as the government prepared for an anti-corruption summit in Kuala Lumpur that would be attended on Tuesday by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. He took power nearly six months ago on a pledge to probe the alleged looting of billions of dollars from the state fund known formally as 1Malaysia Development Berhad.
The month-long bidding for the 300-foot luxury yacht Equanimity started on Monday, lawyer Ong Chee Kwan, who is representing the government and 1MDB in the sale, told BenarNews.
Ong said the auction would be supervised by London-based Burgess Yachts, a global superyacht broker. He said he could not provide an estimate on how much the Equanimity would ultimately fetch.
“As high as possible," he said. “That is all I can say.”
He said a potential bidder must first put in a $1 million (4.17 million ringgit) deposit to Burgess before Nov. 28, the date when officials could decide whether to push through with the sale.
“After paying the deposit, and after the closing date, the admiralty sheriff will determine the face value of the yacht. They will see which bidders meet the face value at least,” he said.
The auction came almost three months after Indonesia turned the yacht over to Malaysia.
Indonesian and U.S. authorities impounded the Cayman Islands-flagged vessel, while it was moored off the Indonesian island of Bali in February, and a Malaysian court approved its sale two months ago.
On June 15, 2017, the United States filed a civil forfeiture lawsuit against the vessel, claiming that Jho Low – whose real name is Low Taek Jho – had bought it for $250 million with money “stolen and embezzled” from 1MDB.
But after news broke that a California court had ordered the boat seized, Jho Low gave instructions to hide the Equanimity in a series of foreign locations, frustrating the government’s efforts to bring the asset for forfeiture in the United States, according to the U.S. investigators.
While Low, whose whereabouts are unknown, has opposed the handover through his statements issued by his lawyers, he failed to claim ownership in the Malaysian court, prompting it to award ownership of Equanimity to the government.
Low’s attorneys did not respond to emails from BenarNews seeking comments on the auction.
Burgess Yachts, on its website, said the Equanimity could accommodate up to 22 guests and 31 crew, with amenities that include a swimming pool, a beauty salon, a massage room, sauna, medical facilities and a helicopter pad.
The vessel is among more than $1.7 billion in assets that Washington claims was bought with money siphoned off from 1MDB, which was set up by former Prime Minister Najib Razak when he was in power in 2009.
Mahathir took power on May 10 after his Pakatan Harapan coalition had devastated the Najib-led ruling party in the general election the day before. Political observers had blamed Najib’s political downfall partly on the 1MDB fiasco.
Najib, who faces multiple charges related to corruption, money laundering and abuse of power, had consistently claimed that the 2.3 billion ringgit ($556.23 million) of money from 1MDB that allegedly landed into his personal bank accounts were a donation from the Saudi royal family.
But, in an interview with Al Jazeera on Friday, Najib confirmed that he could not verify the source of the funds. He assumed, he said, that the donations were connected to Saudi Arabia after its king, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, had given him assurances of support.
However, in a Facebook post on the same day, Najib backtracked and said the money indeed came as a donation from the Saudi government.
Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, however, told reporters on Saturday that the Saudi government had said it was not connected to the funds received by Najib.
Saifuddin made the comments after meeting visiting Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir on Friday.
“He stated that (the money) has nothing to do with the Saudi government,” Saifuddin said, referring to Adel.