By: John Berthelsen

Jho Taek Low, the flamboyant fugitive financier accused of being the mastermind behind the US$4.8 billion collapse of the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd, has carried a Cypriot passport since 2015, according to a Cypriot-based Greek language publication called Politis.

That is likely to have helped Low – who turned 40 on November 4 – evade international authorities including the United States, Singapore and Malaysia. He has been on the run for more than 18 months while proclaiming his innocence through his lawyers, saying he had never held a position with 1MDB and had never been a part of the Malaysian government. He is believed to be hiding in China with a reserve of millions of dollars stolen from the scandal-plagued investment company.

Jho Low, as he called himself, became a minor celebrity in New York and other capitals, photographed by paparazzi pouring expensive champagne into a variety of blonde showgirls and starlets and hobnobbing with movie stars including Leonardo DiCaprio. The affair, called one of the biggest financial scandals in history, played a major role in bringing down the Malaysian government, which had ruled the country for 70 years since independence, with the Barisan Nasional coalition losing historic elections in May of 2018.

According to Cypriot media, the Penang-born Low deposited €5.9 million in a Cypriot bank in June of 2015 and under the country’s laws would have been required to buy a permanent home worth €500,000.

Reuters reported on Oct. 31 that the US Justice Department had struck a deal with Low to recover US$$1 billion from the funds siphoned off from 1MDB, although there has been no independent confirmation of the agreement. Reuters quoted Low as calling the agreement “historic” although he continues to face charges in both the United States and Malaysia over his role in the scandal, which also has ensnared former Prime Minister Najib Razak, Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor and a variety of lesser officials and family.

Polis reported that Low had obtained the Cypriot passport in September of 2015 after investing in property in the Famagusta district of the island. Cyprus has long been known as a bolt-hole for those willing to pay for a passport, as well as a repository for siphoned billions of dollars, although more recently the US Treasury Department’s FinCEN unit has leaned heavily on the Bank of Cyprus, the central bank, to tighten its reporting rules.

The 1MDB scandal was called by the US Justice Department the biggest kleptocracy case it had ever prosecuted. The collapse of the investment company, detailed in two books, one by British journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown and a second one by Wall Street Journal reporters Tom Wright and Bradley Hope, is certainly the biggest scandal ever to hit Malaysia, a country with a long string of financial chicanery including the two-time failure of the state-backed Bank Bumiputera, the loss of billions of dollars at the country’s main seaport, the purchase of unneeded submarines and many other questionable defense purchases, particularly when Najib was defense minister before becoming prime minister.

The sheer amount of money the thieves managed to steal and spend in the United States in the brief five years of the state-backed investment company’s active existence is simply astonishing, according to documents filed by the US Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture Section in Los Angeles. Almost immediately after the company got underway, the looting started on a planet-wide basis for sophisticated baubles, according to the documents. They show that US$682 million that mysteriously appeared in Najib’s personal accounts in 2013 came from 1MDB, not mysterious Saudi benefactors, as Najib claimed.

The stolen funds were used to purchase luxury real estate in the United States and overseas, pay gambling expenses at Las Vegas casinos, acquire more than US$200 million worth of artwork, purchase lavish gifts for family members and associates, invest in a major New York real estate development project and fund the production of major Hollywood films.”

Assets the US government sought included the Equanimity, Jho Low’s 300-foot motor yacht, worth US$250 million, which was finally captured in Bali and returned to the Malaysian government, to be sold to the Genting entertainment and gaming conglomerate. It was renamed the Tranquility and is believed anchored at Monaco, where it was put up for sale in October for a reported US$200 million.