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Malaysia in transition

Chilly ties with China seen hindering Mahathir's hunt for Jho Low

Alleged 1MDB mastermind now a fugitive, still runs his business

KUALA LUMPUR/HONG KONG -- The scandal surrounding Malaysia's state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad has now focused on finding the man alleged to be its mastermind, Low Taek Jho.

The ethnic Chinese-Malaysian financier, also known as Jho Low, is wanted by Malaysia and several other countries. He is believed to be hiding in China, but strained relations between the administration of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Beijing may complicate efforts to return the businessman home.

As a key witness and suspect in the corruption cases involving 1MDB, it is likely that Malaysian authorities will step up their hunt for Low. "I would handcuff him," the prime minister said in August when asked what he would do if Low was brought before him. But this appears to be a long way off.

Mahathir suggested recently that the 36-year-old Low may be hiding in China, and has managed to evade capture due to efforts within his own government to sabotage the hunt. But even if Low is found in China, Malaysia does not have an extradition treaty with the country.

Noting this, Mahathir in September said he was resorting to "private efforts" to bring the fugitive back.

The situation may be further muddled after Malaysia freed 11 ethnic Uighur Muslims who had been detained by the Najib regime and sent them to Turkey, despite requests from China to hand them over. China has been criticized for infringing the human rights of ethnic Uighur people, a charge that Beijing denies.

If Malaysia's move ends up straining ties with China, some see the chance of catching Low may dim.

In August, Malaysian authorities charged Low and his father Hock Peng in absentia with money laundering, later asking the International Criminal Police Organization to help track him down.

The defense for Najib, who is facing over 30 charges related to $4.5 billion missing from 1MDB, has asked for Low to come forward as a witness. Najib's wife, Rosmah Mansor, was also questioned regarding the scandal and subsequently indicted on 17 counts of money laundering and tax evasion.

"I would love to cross examine [Low]," said Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, lead counsel for Najib. "There are a lot of [relevant] documents but you don't have people who can give meaning and context to them."

Low, who graduated in economics from the University of Pennsylvania, was an adviser to Terengganu Investment Authority, later renamed as 1MDB when Najib took power in 2009. The then-28-year-old Low came to Najib's attention because of his connections to the Saudi government. Under the prime minister's watch, 1MDB invested in overseas energy sectors.

"It was in this context that Jho Low represented the Middle East partners and their dealings and partnership with 1MDB," said Najib in an interview with a news outlet in June.

However, investigators including the U.S. Department of Justice allege that the so-called partnership was a scam to divert funds from 1MDB.

Low laundered more than $400 million of the funds misappropriated from 1MDB in the U.S. for his personal use, according to the DOJ's civil forfeiture suit in 2016. Some of the money is believed to have been used to fund the Hollywood blockbuster "Wolf of Wall Street" and purchase the Claude Monet painting "Saint-George Majeur." In August, Indonesia agreed to hand over to Malaysia a luxury yacht belonging to Low.

Jho Low's signature on a document in July shows his activity in Hong Kong entity. 

Low never held a formal position in 1MDB and has proclaimed his innocence, asking the general public via a recently created website to "keep an open mind until all of the evidence comes to light." A spokesperson for Low said he has no additional comment other than the innocence plead.

However, it appears that he continues to run his business in Hong Kong through investment company Jynwel Capital, created in 2010. A document from the city's Companies Registry shows that on July 9, Low appointed KV Pro Services as his company secretary.

It is unclear whether Low was in the city at the time of the appointment, as his physical presence was not required to make the change.

KV, which has replaced Baker & McKenzie in handling correspondence for Low's company, told Nikkei that Low did not show up for the document signing. Instead, the signed document was delivered by an employee of Low in Hong Kong.

KV said they were unaware of Low's whereabouts. On June 26, Low Taek Szen, Low's older brother as well as a director at Jynwel Capital, filed a request to change the company name to Quinton Investments. Hong Kong-based Jynwel Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit group run by Low, was also renamed as the Quantima Charitable Foundation. No reason was given for the name changes and both websites are currently under maintenance.

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