Malaysia’s $4.5bn 1MDB scandal brought down the country’s former prime minister, Najib Razak, and in July saw him convicted and sentenced to 12 years in jail, subject to an appeal, in the first of several trials over his role in looting the fund.
International investment bank Goldman Sachs, often regarded as untouchable, has also been brought to heel, charged with bribing corrupt foreign officials to win 1MDB business and forced to pay out billions of dollars to financial regulators around the world, including in Malaysia and the United States.
But authorities are yet to reel in perhaps the biggest fish, the man who potentially holds all the secrets to exactly how much money was stolen, who took it and who called the shots.
Dubbed the “Billion Dollar Whale” by Wall Street Journal authors, Bradley Hope and Tom Wright, the alleged mastermind of the 1MDB criminal scam is Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho. Wanted by Malaysia, the United States and Singapore, he has been on the run, out of sight and silent, for almost five years.
His only public presence is his official website, jho-low.com, where written statements protesting his innocence are posted by his lawyers.
But now in Al Jazeera’s special investigation, Jho Low: Hunt For A Fugitive, he can be heard for the first time, desperately trying to strike a deal with the Malaysian government to avoid going to jail.
Recordings of Jho Low featured in the programme, obtained exclusively by Al Jazeera, are of a series of extraordinarily revealing phone conversations he had with the former Malaysian government, led by Mahathir Mohamad.
They took place in the weeks and months immediately after the Mahathir-led coalition’s landslide victory against Najib Razak in May 2018. In them, the fugitive betrays fellow conspirators, offers others, also on the run, as potential witnesses in 1MDB-related cases and complains about the mounting costs of legal representation. His sense of entitlement and lack of remorse are on full display.
“I don’t believe there’s any wrongdoing,” he says and then goes on to suggest he merely borrowed the billions from 1MDB to buy himself, among other things, luxury real estate around the world, art masterpieces, a private jet and a mega-yacht, not to mention millions of dollars worth of Christal champagne.
“All these ultimately were loans, directly or indirectly, but, ultimately, I think the time has come, we want to assist in repatriating these assets back in return for cooperating and moving on with life without, you know, being prosecuted,” he asserts.
Former FBI special agent, Debra LaPrevotte, who was involved in the initial stages of the 1MDB investigation and is now a senior investigator for anti-kleptocracy NGO The Sentry, dismisses Jho Low outright.
“If there were no wrongdoing, people wouldn’t be giving back the assets, right? There would be no assets to be seized. It’s comical. It’s like, if I keep saying the lie, maybe somebody will believe me,” she says.
Bill McMurry, the FBI Special Agent who led the 1MDB investigation from 2015 until recently and who now works with the 5 Stones Intelligence company, is in no doubt about Jho Low’s guilt.
“We’re very confident that we will be able to prove Jho Low’s involvement and his position in this scheme,” he says.
‘Half a billion dollars’ worth of jewellery
Jho Low puts the blame for the 1MDB heist firmly on former Prime Minister Najib, who was also finance minister at the time billions were stolen from the sovereign wealth fund, claiming, “I have no authority to make any decision … It’s a pretty known fact that … all the approvals have to be approved by the minister of finance.”
He goes on to add support to the findings of the US Department of Justice that most of the more than $1bn that arrived in Najib Razak’s personal bank account was from 1MDB and not a gift from Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah, as the former prime minister continues to claim.
“The reality is, it is true that King Abdullah actually agreed to give [a] donation to the PM but that was the small portion of a larger portion,” Jho Low says.
But perhaps the most stunning claim Jho Low makes about Najib is the amount of 1MDB money spent on jewellery for the former prime minister’s wife, Rosmah Mansor. The US Department of Justice documents in detail Jho Low’s purchase of a $27m pink diamond for Rosmah, but according to the fugitive, there was a lot more bought for her.
In fact, he says, “north of half a billion dollars” worth. “That was a huge amount,” he adds.
Abu Dhabi’s involvement
Jho Low then turns on 1MDB’s business partners in the Middle East. The Abu Dhabi government has been silent when it comes to its involvement in the 1MDB scandal, but the alleged mastermind of the financial scam claims the capital of the United Arab Emirates was complicit.
“The reality is, Abu Dhabi people did take money. The discussion I left off with them is, look, whatever I settle with the DOJ [Department of Justice] that is used to pay 1MDB bonds, you should all match the same amount, which is probably close to a billion dollars,” he says.
At various times during the phone calls, Jho Low discloses that he is in China and discusses the possibility of a rendezvous in Hong Kong or Macau. But then when Malaysia’s 1MDB investigators set up a meeting in Macau, he flees to the United Arab Emirates the day before.
“Because of the whole warrant of arrest, you know, effectively the UAE folks didn’t think it was safe, so I [have] just gotten into Dubai,” he reveals and goes on to explain how the UAE is “ultra-paranoid now, so I think it’s going to be challenging for me to get any clearance to meet”.
‘High-level government assistance’
Jho Low has two Interpol Red Notices against him issued by Singapore in 2016 and Malaysia in June 2018 as well as an active US arrest warrant. He has also had his Malaysian passport and the passports he bought from St Kitts and Cyprus cancelled, but it seems his ability to move around has not been curtailed.
Prior to the 2018 Malaysian election, he flew in and out of Thailand regularly on private jets. In September 2019 he reportedly flew to Kuwait.
Al Jazeera has seen official flight clearance documents confirming earlier reports by the Hong Kong-based Asia Times, that in November 2019 he flew on a Gulfstream jet from Bangkok to Dubai stopping off for three days in India’s Ahmedabad. According to the documents, he was travelling on a previously undisclosed passport from another Caribbean nation, Grenada.
Despite the Interpol Red Notices against Jho Low, Malaysian police say they were not notified by authorities that he had arrived in or departed from these countries.
Bill McMurry tells Al Jazeera that the only way Jho Low has been able to continue to travel “is through corruption and through extremely high-level government assistance”.
But the former FBI special agent still holds out hope of harpooning the whale. “If he does have the full resources of one or more governments to assist him to maintain his status as a fugitive, it can be difficult to get them, but not impossible,” he ventures.
The Malaysian police have categorically stated that they know Jho Low is living in Macau, but China strongly refutes this. Separate sources in both Malaysia and Macau confirmed to Al Jazeera that the fugitive has been living in Asia’s gambling capital since at least February 2018 in a house owned by a senior member of the Chinese Communist Party.