US denies role in Equanimity transfer to Malaysia

Equanimity, the 90-metre luxury yacht worth US$250 million that belonged to Jho Low, the flamboyant international financier who allegedly played a central role in the 1MDB controversy that has engulfed former prime minister Najib Razak, arrives in Port Klang outside of Kuala Lumpur on 7 August, 2018. (STR / AFP Photo)

The United States (US) Justice Department reiterated it wasn’t involved in turning over Low Taek Jho’s US$250 million super yacht to Malaysia from Indonesia as the fugitive financier vowed not to submit to any jurisdiction where his guilt had been predetermined.

Federal prosecutors said their only part in the yacht’s handover was to advise the crew members of the “Equanimity” to obey the instructions of the Indonesian government, which had both physical and legal custody of the 300-foot boat, according to a court filing in Los Angeles on Friday.

Lawyers representing the companies that hold title to Low’s yacht last week asked a federal judge to order the Justice Department to provide a “thorough clarification” on whether US agencies or officials knew in advance or were involved in transferring the “Equanimity” to Malaysia. The lawyers cited a statement by the Malaysian attorney general that thanked the US for its help in seizing the yacht.

The yacht arrived at a port in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur on 7 August, after it travelled from Indonesia where it was seized in February as part of the Justice Department’s probe linked to state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called on the yacht’s owner to prove that it wasn’t bought using money from the scandal-ridden fund, at the centre of global probes linked to embezzlement and money laundering, while Low had said Malaysia’s move to acquire the vessel was “illegitimate.”

It’s not surprising to see the Justice Department confirm that “Malaysia’s illegal seizure of the Equanimity was without US knowledge or consent,” a spokesman for Low, through his attorneys, said in a statement.

The yacht is among more than US$1.7 billion in assets that the US claims were acquired by Low, commonly known as Jho Low, and his accomplices with money they siphoned from 1MDB. US District Judge Dale Fischer in May had ordered Low’s companies to hand over the vessel to the US so it could be sailed from Indonesia and sold. Instead, it ended up in Malaysia.

According to the US filing, the US government in June retained Wilson Yacht Management Co. - the same firm used by Low’s companies - to hire a crew and manage the yacht’s upkeep. The company took the following steps to sail the yacht:

6 July: Began to assemble a crew in Bali, Indonesia. 11 July: Prepared a draft action plan on steps to sail yacht to the US and fuelled it in preparation for the voyage to the US. 16 July: Obtained approval to pay outstanding wages to the previous crew and obtain visas and transit paperwork for the new crew. 27 July: Received certification letter confirming the yacht was cleared to dock in Guam on or after 8 August.

On 1 August, the US learned that Indonesia had directed the crew to sail the yacht to a location near the maritime border with Malaysia and informed claimants of the impending move, according to the filing. On 6 August, it found out that the yacht’s custody had been turned over to Malaysia.

“Claimants have alleged that the US government co-orchestrated or assisted in the handover of the yacht from Indonesia to Malaysia,” the prosecutors said. Other than actions “which were necessary and appropriate to maintain the safety and security of the yacht - the US government took no part in Indonesia’s transferring the yacht to Malaysia.”

Earlier Friday, a spokesman for Low, through his attorneys, issued a statement in response to a Wall Street Journal story that said China had been harbouring him and that Malaysia will seek to extradite him.

“It is little wonder Mr. Low believes there is no jurisdiction where he can get a fair hearing in this matter,” according to the statement. “To reiterate: Mr. Low will not submit to any jurisdiction where guilt has been predetermined by politics and self-interest overrules legal process.” – Bloomberg