KUALA LUMPUR: Indonesia has returned to Malaysia a luxury yacht linked to the multi-billion dollar 1MDB financial scandal, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Monday (Aug 6), a move seen as bolstering a corruption probe involving ex-leader Najib Razak.
The Cayman Islands-registered Equanimity, believed to be worth about US$250 million and belonged to a fugitive Malaysian financier with links to Najib, was seized in February off the Indonesian tourist island of Bali.
Indonesian authorities detained the super-yacht following a request by the US Department of Justice, which is investigating alleged massive misappropriation involving the 1MDB state fund.
"We are happy since the Equanimity yacht has been handed over to us by Indonesia," Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who is on a tour to Japan, said in a Facebook post.
YACHT TO ARRIVE AT PORT KLANG
The luxury yacht is expected to arrive in Malaysia on Tuesday at Pulau Indah, Port Klang, a government source told Channel NewsAsia.
"The yacht will berth at the Boustead Cruise Center, Pulau Indah, Port Klang,” the government source told Channel NewsAsia.
Mahathir also thanked Indonesian President Joko Widodo for his cooperation.
Ties between Malaysia and Indonesia are close with Mahathir visiting Jakarta in June, his first official tour of the region after a stunning election victory in May over Najib.
A total of US$4.5 billion was allegedly misappropriated by top-level 1MDB officials and their associates, according to civil lawsuits filed by the US Department of Justice (DoJ).
The suits allege that US$1.7 billion worth of assets were allegedly bought with the stolen funds, which US officials are seeking to recover.
Those assets include the 90m super-yacht owned by Low Taek Jho - popularly known as Jho Low - a close Najib associate and former unofficial adviser to 1MDB.
Low, a flamboyant playboy known for partying with Hollywood A-listers, was believed to have been sailing around Asia on the yacht before it was seized.
JHO LOW RESPONDS
His lawyer called the seizure an "illegal act" in a press release on Monday.
"Mahathir has chosen to bring the asset illegally into a rigged Malaysian system manipulated by a man who only cares about his absolute political rule. It is ultimately justice that suffers," the statement said.
Dr Mahathir said in the video that if any parties claiming to be the yacht's owners could show proof that they bought the yacht with their own money and not stolen money, then they had the right to get it back.
"However, according to reports and an investigation by the United States Department of Justice, they are of the opinion that this yacht was bought with money from 1MDB whereby there were attempts to launder the money by buying yachts, buildings and others so that the money could no longer be seen as money stolen by them," he said.
The Equanimity is valued at US$250 million.
Najib, who set up 1MDB in 2009 and served as chairman of its advisory board, was charged in Malaysia in July with corruption offences linked to the scandal.
He denied all four charges and is currently out on bail.
RECOVER STOLEN LOOT
Mahathir has vowed to recover the stolen loot. The country's anti-corruption authorities have issued an arrest warrant for Jho Low.
Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng told reporters the government planned to take inventory of items one the yacht and open the vessel for public viewing, before eventually selling it "at the highest price".
“It (the yacht) will be under the custody of the government of Malaysia. The ministry's concern is to get the best value for the ship. If we leave it, every day you've got to pay maintenance costs and you'll get to see the asset deteriorate, diminish and depreciate," he told reporters.
Lim said Malaysia's attorney-general was expected to issue a statement on Tuesday regarding the status of the yacht and address concerns that it could affect investigations by the DoJ.
Legal experts said the return of the yacht would bolster the case against Najib and other people linked to the scandal and could be used to prosecute Jho Low after the fugitive is caught.
"Of course it will help the prosecutors. It is part of the evidence of the crime committed. It is certainly a positive development in the investigations," N Surendran, adviser to a group called Lawyers for Liberty, told AFP.
Additional reporting by Amy Chew.