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Politics

Malaysia's 1MDB trial reveals Jho Low's alleged role as mastermind

Fugitive financier choreographed Najib's visit to China for bailout projects

Fugitive businessman Low Taek Jho, better known as Jho Low, has become a central figure in Malaysia's 1MDB scandal. (Nikkei Montage/Getty Images)

KUALA LUMPUR -- Disgraced former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is not the sole big name to watch in his ongoing graft cases over billions of dollars allegedly siphoned from defunct national wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).

The prosecution team, led by former apex court justice Gopal Sri Ram, has detailed the role of a young Malaysian Chinese businessman and now fugitive, Low Taek Jho, now globally known as Jho Low. They say he acted as a bridge for Najib to skim funds from 1MDB-related projects, some of which involved Chinese state-owned companies and major investment banks.

Najib, who governed Malaysia from 2009 to 2018, allowed Jho Low to make investment decisions while government officials, including the prime minister's aides, were forced to obey his instructions.

This is according to Amhari Efendi Nazaruddin, a former special officer who worked for Najib for 10 years. Amhari said Jho Low sent the prime minister's aides on secret missions to China and the Middle East to negotiate mega-projects needed to bail out 1MDB, which was saddled with heavy debt arising from mismanagement.

"Najib himself asked me to go to his residence in Jalan Langgak Duta [in Kuala Lumpur] to discuss this matter, explaining that the trip [to China] would be arranged by Jho Low," Amhari told the court.

"I had to comply, although at the time I was under intense pressure and had thoughts of stopping work because these orders were placing a great burden on me, more so," he said, adding, "Nevertheless, I had to follow his orders because he was my boss, and what is more, he was the prime minister of Malaysia."

The projects in question include the controversial East Coast Rail Link to be built by China Communications Construction, and two gas pipelines that have been shelved by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's government. The railway project is back in the works after significant cost cuts negotiated with China.

In the last year, since he was dethroned by the Mahathir-led Pakatan Harapan coalition, the 66-year-old Najib has appeared in court almost daily, fighting two main cases stemming from the misappropriation of billions of dollars from 1MDB and its former subsidiary SRC International.

For 1MDB-related allegations covering the period between March and August 2013, Najib is facing 25 corruption and money laundering charges involving almost $575 million. Najib maintains that he is innocent and that the allegations are politically motivated by the present government.

Separately, the former leader faces seven counts of breach of trust, abuse of power and money laundering related to SRC International, involving a "gratification" sum of $10.5 million. In each of the cases, Najib is facing up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to five times the value of the money at issue.

Hailing from the northern island state of Penang, Jho Low drew close to Najib's family via his stepson Riza Aziz, with whom he later went on to produce the Hollywood financial scam drama "The Wolf of Wall Street" starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The duo also purchased luxury assets and paintings in the U.S., which were seized in 2018 by the Department of Justice and later auctioned.

Using his connections with Riza, Jho Low, now 37, won Najib's trust by flaunting his purported connections with Middle Eastern royals after 2009, at a time when the then-new prime minister desperately needed foreign funds for political activities in Malaysia.

According to Amhari, Jho Low was running day-to-day operations in the prime minister's office, including investment dealings, government-to-government negotiations and political fundraising. The fugitive businessman also orchestrated Najib's working visit to China in November 2016, to persuade Chinese companies to invest more in Malaysia and take on joint venture projects.

Not stopping there, Amhari said he himself had led a confidential work trip to China and the United Arab Emirates to facilitate bailouts for 1MDB. Through an arrangement made by Jho Low, he said he also met Khaldoon Mubarak, the chief executive of Abu Dhabi state fund Mubadala, to settle a 1MDB bond payment dispute with the International Petroleum Investment Co. without pursuing arbitration as planned.

The prosecution is expected to rest its case on the 1MDB charges in mid-November, after which the court will decide whether to acquit Najib or call on his lawyers to mount a defense.

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