SINGAPORE – When will Jho Low finally be brought to justice?

It’s a question many in Malaysia are asking since new revelations about the country’s most wanted man came to light, including China’s apparent role in providing him refuge to evade global authorities seeking his arrest.

Low, whose full name is Low Taek Jho, has been on the run for nearly five years and is widely viewed as the mastermind behind the multi-billion-dollar 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal.

Earning infamy for his extravagant spending and penchant for partying, the elusive 39-year-old financier has avoided the limelight and kept largely silent as a fugitive, spending millions on legal fees and public relations services. He has continued to travel internationally despite having two Interpol Red Notices and an active US arrest warrant out against him.

The long-running search for Low hasn’t let up amid a year that has seen Malaysia gripped by political turmoil and an ongoing health crisis. Police officials have lamented making no discernible headway in repatriating the Penang-born fugitive at the center of one of the biggest ever financial heists, though they claim to know where he is.

In August, Malaysian Inspector-General of Police Abdul Hamid Bador stated categorically that Low is living in Macau and “almost freely conducting his business” in the Chinese autonomous region, while needling law enforcement authorities in China for their lack of cooperation. China’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur strongly rejected those claims as “groundless and unacceptable.”  

Apart from his alleged role in misappropriating 1MDB funds, Low is being sought as an important material witness in the ongoing trials of Malaysia’s former prime minister Najib Razak. A series of leaked audio recordings recently made public by Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera underscore how Low’s testimony would have major political implications.

Jho Low: Hunt For A Fugitive, a two-part documentary produced by Australian journalist Mary Ann Jolley, is based on a series of taped conversations made between May and November 2018 that feature Low attempting to strike a deal with the Mahathir Mohamad administration by waiving his rights to seized assets in exchange for avoiding jail time.

Malaysian fugitive financier Jho Low in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

Low is heard deflecting responsibility for 1MDB’s plunder, pinning the blame squarely on then-premier Najib, whose concurrent role as finance minister at the time meant he was the state fund’s highest authority. Insisting he committed no wrongdoing, the fugitive businessman claimed 1MDB funds that flowed to him “ultimately were loans, directly or indirectly.”

“Jho Low’s claim that he was somehow loaned money by the 1MDB fund is preposterous,” said Tom Wright, co-author of the bestselling book Billion Dollar Whale, which documents Low’s role in the globe-spanning corruption scandal. “As US and Malaysian prosecutors have alleged, he was the mastermind of a multi-billion-dollar scheme to defraud 1MDB.”

Prosecutors at the US Department of Justice (DoJ) accuse Low, who held no formal position at 1MDB, of orchestrating a vast money-laundering scheme that saw an estimated US$4.5 billion siphoned from the fund between 2009 to 2014, with a “Malaysian Official #1″ cited in charge sheets as having “high-level authority to approve 1MDB business decisions.”

Nominally created to finance strategic development projects, 1MDB functioned as a political slush fund for Najib and an expense account for Low, fuelling bottomless spending on a mega-yacht and private jet, luxury property, fine art purchases, movie production investments and extravagant parties attended by supermodels, musicians and Hollywood actors, according to various reports.

The Malaysian government has said that 1MDB, founded in 2009 with Najib as its advisory board chairman, has an estimated 32.3 billion ringgit ($7.8 billion) in outstanding debt as of September 2020. A total of 13.4 billion ringgit ($3.2 billion) in assets linked to 1MDB have so far been recovered, though authorities say billions of dollars remain unaccounted for.

Proffering to provide Malaysian authorities with a full list of asset purchases, the leaked tapes showcase how Low sought to make himself “indispensable” to Malaysian investigators by pushing a narrative of his cooperation being essential to the complete story being heard and offering his fellow conspirators, also on the run, as witnesses.

“To be honest, I know most of the people that can be very helpful if the objective is, you know, let’s look at black and white who’s at fault, is the prime minister at fault, is the first lady at fault,” Low is heard saying in reference to Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor, who he claimed spent “north of half a billion dollars” of 1MDB funds on jewelry.

Former Malaysian PM Najib Razak and his wife Rosmah Mansor have been accused of pilfering a vast sum from the 1MDB development fund. Photo: Agencies

In July, Najib was found guilty and sentenced to 12 years in jail for abuses stemming from 1MDB. He faces two other 1MDB-linked trials, but will likely remain out of prison until all appeals are exhausted. Prosecutors have argued that the 67-year-old former prime minister worked in tandem with Low to defraud the state fund for personal gain.

If Low were repatriated or chose to voluntarily return to Malaysia to clear his name – something he refused to do under the Mahathir administration, calling the charges against him politically motivated and casting himself as a scapegoat – some observers think Najib’s problems would be compounded if the fugitive Malaysian were made to testify.

“Jho Low has made the point several times that he could never have achieved any of his manipulations unless he had been fully authorized by the ‘Big Boss’ as he called Najib,” said investigative journalist Clare Rewcastle-Brown, editor of whistleblower website Sarawak Report. “Few judges looking at the evidence would be inclined to disagree.”

Najib’s defense counsel takes the contrary view, with Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, his lead attorney, having claimed Low’s testimony would be “100% better” for his client’s defense. Legal strategists don’t rule out that such testimony could be used as grounds to appeal 1MDB-related convictions on the basis that the former premier was the victim of a scam by Low.

Despite being declared guilty on charges of corruption and abuse of power, Najib remains one of Malaysia’s key political players and continues to wield influence over the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the party he formerly led. If the party is eventually returned to power, some analysts speculate that Najib’s legal convictions could one day be overturned.

“Jho Low’s recordings suggest that he is willing to throw Najib under the bus for his own deal, but what will be important to access is what the evidence is and how it will affect the previous trials and future ones,” said Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Asia Research Institute.

Throughout the taped conversations released by Al Jazeera, an unwillingness to admit to wrongdoing is a consistent theme of Low’s statements as he appears to spin events in ways that absolve himself of guilt while possibly exaggerating the roles of others, raising questions about his future credibility as a witness.

“Low’s return, if it happens at all, will not necessarily bring closure. He’s a wanted man who has basically tried to talk his way out of a difficult situation. Based on what is known about his behavior in the past, one has to question everything he says and his motives. The proof of what he brings to the table will have to be tested in a court of law,” Welsh added.

Rewcastle-Brown believes the fugitive Malaysian can still be a credible witness in providing information, such as emails and recorded conversations “should he seek to prove the collusion of powerful co-conspirators. He can provide an account that can be judged against the accounts given by others…to close gaps in a story that is largely now exposed.”

Abdul Hamid, Malaysia’s police chief, has confirmed that Low sought to bargain for his freedom with the former Malaysian government and urged the fugitive businessman to return to Malaysia and offer his testimony about the 1MDB affair to the public prosecutor. “If he thinks he is innocent, why is he still in hiding?” he was quoted as saying.

Then Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People, Beijing, November 10, 2014. Photo: Agencies

Malaysian police earlier this year urged authorities in China to help hunt down other suspects linked to 1MDB, including Nik Faisal Ariff Kamil, ex-chief executive of 1MDB unit SRC International Sdn Bhd, who is believed to be in Hong Kong, and Jasmine Loo, another former official from the fund thought to be in the neighboring city of Shenzhen.

“As long as there is a lack of cooperation from authorities in Hong Kong or Macau… it is impossible for me to give any dates,” Abdul Hamid said in August, in response to a question about when police would succeed in hunting down Low and other 1MDB fugitives. He vowed that authorities would “never rest” in their efforts to bring them to justice.

Other top Malaysian officials have approached the issue more cautiously, with Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who is Najib’s cousin, recently telling Parliament that he “did not know if he (Low) is truly in China”, adding that his ministry would have no reason not to help repatriate Low if police had confirmed his location there.

China has repeatedly refuted allegations that it is harboring 1MDB fugitives and providing official protection to Low, who according to testimony from Najib’s trial acted as a liaison between the then-premier and Chinese officials, including by serving as a translator during negotiations in June 2016 for several infrastructure mega-projects involving Chinese state firms.

Beijing-backed developments included the multi-billion-dollar East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) and two other now-canceled gas pipeline deals, projects that became political lightning rods after reports cited them as being financed at inflated values to generate excess cash which was in turn used to cover 1MDB’s maturing debts. China’s government has denied any link to 1MDB-related corruption.

Low is heard lauding the ECRL as the “biggest program” in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) during the taped conversation, telling an unnamed Malaysian official that “there was some intent that if local contractors made a substantial margin, then a portion of the profits will be used to acquire certain assets of 1MDB.”

Mahathir’s government, which came to power vowing to punish those responsible for 1MDB’s plunder and recover funds lost to the scandal, initiated reviews of China-linked projects over concerns of overburdening the country with debt. In April 2019, an agreement was reached with Beijing to cut the ECRL’s construction costs by nearly one-third from 65.5 billion ringgit ($16 billion) to 44 billion ringgit ($11 billion).

1MDB logo pictured on a bus window in Kuala Lumpur, February 17, 2017. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/Chris Jung

The fugitive Malaysian claimed that the Chinese government was “very concerned” about how the ECRL controversy could impact Beijing “from a reputational perspective” and understood that it would need to make price adjustments pushed for by the Mahathir administration as it sought to avoid involvement in “Najib-related items.”

“I don’t think they will throw him under the bus,” Low added, in reference to Najib.

Sarawak Report reported in May that Hong Kong-based subsidiaries of the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), which was appointed as the ECRL’s contractor without an open tender in 2016, began transferring a series of payments linked to developments in Malaysia to an account in Kuwait controlled by a Low surrogate.

According to Al Jazeera, more than $1.2 billion dollars were moved between 2016 and 2017 into company accounts controlled by Sheikh Sabah Al-Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Hamad Al-Sabah, the son of Kuwait’s former prime minister, at least $50 million of which went toward settling Low’s legal fees as he sought to fend off US and Malaysian investigators.

“Jho Low’s modus operandi was to adopt the sons and advisors of powerful rulers and offer to help them exploit their connections to provide a front for 1MDB in return for a massive share of the loot from Malaysia,” said Rewcastle-Brown. “These various transactions have the ability to embarrass China and that country is likely to do what is necessary to prevent Jho Low from testifying in a foreign court.”

Unnamed sources cited by the Qatari broadcaster claimed that Low has resided in Macau since at least February 2018 in a house owned by a senior member of the Communist Party of China, while in August US prosecutors for the first time linked Low to a high-ranking Chinese official in a criminal complaint brought by the District Court of Hawaii.

The US complaint, brought against US-based consultant Nickie Mali Lum Davis for failing to disclose lobbying efforts made on Low’s behalf in a bid to persuade the Donald Trump administration to close the DoJ’s investigation into 1MDB, alleges that she concurrently lobbied for China’s interests at his request, under the direction of an individual referred to as “PRC Minister A.”

The unnamed minister allegedly sought the repatriation of billionaire dissident Guo Wengui, China’s highest-profile fugitive. Guo, a right-wing media personality with business ties to former White House advisor Steve Bannon, applied for political asylum in the US in 2017 and is wanted by authorities in Beijing on corruption charges.

Protesters’ placard pictures Jho Low during a ‘Nab A Thief’ rally in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, April 14, 2018. Photo: AFP / EyePress Newswire / F L Wong

While Low’s lobbying efforts have been unsuccessful, they indicate that he is leveraging his network and personal wealth to make himself useful to those aiding and abetting his attempts to evade arrest. With China unable to convincingly refute its murky role in the 1MDB scandal in the eyes of Malaysian police, how Low’s story ends is far from clear.

“The question becomes and goes back to what China is getting out of this. How long is China going to continue to offer refuge to a criminal, a person who is not just wanted in Malaysia, but wanted internationally in multiple courtrooms? I think it’s clearly not showing itself as a protector of the rule of law,” said academic Welsh.

“And given that the case has largely come from the United States in terms of many of the original 1MDB issues, and of course Jho Low being wanted in the US, I think that China is choosing to protect its political friends. It’s no secret that Najib was very close to China. I think that we’re seeing a persistence of that friendship,” she added.