Saturday, March 17, 2018
Is the seizure of the yacht Trump's revenge?
On the last day of last month (February 28), Indonesian authorities made a surprise descent on the luxury yacht Equanimity in Benoa Bay, Bali, and seized the vessel, said to be worth US$250 million.
According to "financetwitter" four United States "chief investigators" accompanied the Indonesian police, suggesting a joint operation.
Registered in the Cayman Islands, the yacht is claimed to be the property of financier Low Taek Jho, generally known as Jho Low. However, he was not on board at the time. His present whereabouts are unknown -- the best guess is that it is somewhere in Taiwan. He has been a shadowy figure, reported as spending most of his time on Equanimity -- which was sailing under the radar, as it were, with its positioning signals turned off -- and the rest in Shanghai. The yacht has been reported in Cambodia, Thailand, Taiwan, and some of Indonesia's most remote islands, as well as Bali, as Jho Low secretly cruised the South China Sea. It was probably just a matter of luck that he was not in his plush stateroom on the Equanimity when the police climbed on board.
Agung Setya, the director of Special Crimes at Indonesia's equivalent of the British CID, announced that when the yacht was seized there were 34 crew present, and that these were being cross-examined. "I have been told by the US Department of Justice," he said, "that this vessel is among the assets resulting from criminal activity." This is, of course, part of the investigation into the 1MDB scandal, where Malaysian development funds were allegedly misappropriated. And a prime figure in this investigation is the Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak, who is also the Chairman of 1MDB. As the writer for "finance twitter" observes, he has been "caught with his hand in the cookie jar -- a whopping US$681 million in his private banking accounts."
This investigation has been going on for quite a while. In August 2017, when it was well underway, the US Department of Justice asked for a stay on the civil move to seize assets bought with 1MDB funds, as they were conducting a related criminal probe -- one where offenders could be extradited to face justice. And so the matter stalled for months, while Jho Low flitted about the South China Sea -- and then, suddenly, the investigators sprang into action. And it is probably no coincidence that it happened at the same time that Najib Razak was about to call a snap election.
According to the Straits Times, this could be held as early as the last week or so in April. And Najib Razak's coalition government has a good chance of getting back into power, courtesy of a reshaping of electoral boundaries.
So, why the rush to discredit him? It goes back, perhaps, to his visit to the White House in September 2017, where he pledged a US$20 billion investment, to "help make America great again." Was it in the hope that the US investigation into 1MDB money-laundering be closed? If so, it was doomed, because the promise was an empty one: the money has never materialized.
And so the order to expedite the investigation and, incidentally, seize the yacht, was issued.
Both Jho Low and Najib Razak must be sleeping uneasily. Jho Low has no diplomatic immunity, and if found could be extradited, to face charges and give evidence. And, if the Prime Minister of Malaysia loses the election, he loses his diplomatic immunity, too.