A milestone deal reached between fugitive Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho and the United States Department of Justice (DoJ) to recoup US$1 billion allegedly pilfered from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state investment fund has been hailed as the largest civil forfeiture settlement in US history.

The 38-year old better known as Jho Low who purportedly pulled off one of the biggest ever financial heists said he was “very pleased” with the deal announced last week, which does not constitute an admission of guilt or liability.

But for Malaysia, which seeks to extradite Low on money laundering charges and restore the country’s financial standing through the recovery of billions of dollars of pilfered funds, neither progress nor justice will likely come any time soon.

Widely seen as the mastermind behind the scandal, Low staunchly denies responsibility and says charges against him are politicized. Yet as part of the US DoJ settlement, Low and his family members have agreed to forfeit over $700 million in assets tied to the globe-spanning, multi-billion dollar corruption scandal.

Hours after the announcement, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad – whose government came to power last year vowing to recover lost funds and punish those responsible for 1MDB’s plunder, chief among them ex-premier Najib Razak – said his country would lay claim to all seized assets that “were bought with Malaysian money.”

“Part of the 1MDB money was used by Jho Low to buy assets in America…worth about $680 million. He (Low) has now decided not to contest against the DoJ,” he told reporters on October 31. “We had proof he was using Malaysia’s money to buy the assets and we will now make a claim to the American government.”

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks during a press conference in Putrajaya on May 9, 2019. Photo: AFP/ Mohd Rasfan

Despite strong evidence in support of Mahathir’s claim, including the DoJ’s public forfeiture complaint against the corresponding assets, sources familiar with the agreement told Asia Times that Malaysia “will likely have to wait as long as one year before it sees any of this money returned” due to complexities surrounding the deal.

According to the same sources, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media, obstacles include the fact that Low’s assets corresponding to the forfeiture are based in multiple jurisdictions and take various forms. The deal must also be approved by a federal judge before it is finalized.

The agreement, which the Malaysian government had neither approved nor been privy to its negotiations, allows Low to pay his legal fees using a portion of the settlement, amounting to around $15 million. The fugitive Malaysian national is represented by former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and lawyers from the international litigation firm Kobre and Kim.

A prolonged wait for the repatriation of funds would be bad news to Mahathir’s government, which is facing increasing political pressure to deliver on pledges to prosecute those responsible for looting 1MDB and recover its stolen billions, both of which have proven so far to be more complicated than originally anticipated.

Asia Times reported exclusively in May that the US was seen to be “dragging its feet” on the return of seized assets and frozen funds that were determined to be embezzled from 1MDB, an impression that has strained ties between the DoJ and Malaysian government negotiators, according to sources familiar with the situation who were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Cooperation between the two sides had then regressed to the point where, in an apparent quid pro quo, Malaysia agreed to extradite former Goldman Sachs banker Roger Ng, a key 1MDB witness and defendant, to the US in exchange for $196 million held by the DoJ, the first tranche of funds recovered through the department’s asset seizures.

Click here for Asia Times’ investigative report on how Ng’s extradition facilitated the return of 1MDB assets recovered by US authorities.

Currently, the DoJ is still in the process of remitting a portion of the $196 million promised to Malaysia in May. The Southeast Asian nation has so far recouped at least $322 million of the $4.5 billion that US authorities say was siphoned from 1MDB.

1MDB logo pictured on a bus window in Kuala Lumpur, February 17, 2017. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/Chris Jung

Then-premier Najib, who is currently standing trial for his role in the globe-spanning scandal, established 1MDB in 2009 and is reported to have outsourced much of its top-level management to Low with an understanding that the body would effectively be utilized as a political slush fund.

Though Low’s settlement deal does not include an admission of guilt or wrongdoing, the Penang-born businessman’s asset forfeitures, including high-end real estate in Beverly Hills, New York and London and tens of millions of dollars in business investments, have not affected criminal proceedings still pending against him in the US.

Low faces separate charges in the Eastern District of New York for conspiring to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act for allegedly paying bribes to various Malaysian and Emirati officials, and in the District of Columbia for reputedly conspiring to make and conceal illegal foreign campaign contributions to Barack Obama’s campaign in the 2012 US presidential elections.

Legal sources quoted in media reports speculate that Low’s lawyers could secure another settlement in the coming months in connection with the charge he faces in the Eastern District Court, which some believe could complicate Malaysia’s own efforts to bring the elusive fugitive financier to justice.

James Chin, director of the University of Tasmania’s Asia Institute, told Asia Times that Malaysians widely view the DoJ settlement “with anger and disbelief” and that a growing number of people think Low will be able to evade capture indefinitely “once he has [agreed] to give up all the ill-gotten gains.”

Malaysians, said the academic, “are also very surprised that a person of Chris Christie’s reputation is willing to represent a person like Jho Low. Even more astonishing is that legal fees are part of the settlement. There is a general sense that Jho Low can get away with everything.”

Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in a media interview on February 1, 2019 in New York City. Photo: AFP/Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Christie, a candidate for the Republican 2016 presidential nomination who served as head of US President Donald Trump’s transition team, is reported to have taken a direct role in negotiating the settlement with the DoJ, which last year initiated a probe into whether Christie and others in Low’s legal team had been paid with ill-gotten funds.

Proceeds from Low’s now liquidated $415 million stake in EMI Music Publishing, which prosecutors say he acquired in 2012 for just over $100 million using funds pilfered from 1MDB, will go toward legal fees and costs related to the lawsuits and cannot be routed back to Low or his family as part of the deal.

After reaching the DoJ settlement, a spokesman for Low said in an apparent jab at Malaysian authorities that he had been offered asylum in an unidentified country “that acts in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and European Convention on Human Rights.”

Last month, Malaysian police said they had determined Low’s whereabouts and hoped to have him apprehended and extradited to Malaysia by year’s end. Abdul Hamid Bador, Malaysia’s Inspector General of Police, said on November 4 that the unidentified country where Low has sought refuge, speculated to be either China or a Gulf Arab nation, has not been cooperative.

The fugitive businessman is believed to be traveling internationally and evading arrest by using multiple Mediterranean and Caribbean island nations’ passports obtained through investment-based citizenship schemes offered by small island states such as Malta and St Kitts and Nevis.

Politis, a Greek language newspaper in Cyprus, earlier this week reported that Low obtained a Cypriot passport four years ago as 1MBD was initially being investigated by Malaysia’s then attorney-general. Though Low was not wanted at the time, international news reports had already prominently carried allegations of his involvement in the then just emerging scandal.

Jho Low’s Cypriot passport. Image: Twitter

Low was reportedly naturalized as a citizen of the Mediterranean island state through the government-backed Cyprus Investment Program (CIP) after purchasing a €5 million ($5.5 million) property in the resort town of Ayia Napa and depositing €5.9 million ($6.5 million) in a Cypriot bank in June 2015 to satisfy the scheme’s criteria.

The fugitive Malaysian notably received the endorsement of the head of the country’s Christian Orthodox church, Archbishop Chrysostomos II, who has since distanced himself from the case, saying he wrote a letter to the country’s then interior minister in support of Low’s efforts to fast-track his citizenship at the request of a local property developer.

The archbishop claimed Low donated €300,000 ($333,000) to a theological school during a visit to Cyprus. In response to the report, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades said “errors” could have been made in granting citizenship to certain wealthy investors and that a full investigation would be launched into Low’s eligibility.

An uproar over Cyprus’ investment-based citizenship scheme was trigged last month after Reuters published an investigation that revealed wealthy relatives and allies of autocratic Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had acquired Cypriot passports, which allow for visa-free travel throughout the European Union.

“In Malaysia, there is a saying ‘money talks’ and this is very true in this case,” said Chin. “At the end of the day, it’s not about passports but the massive failure of the ‘new’ Malaysia to track down Jho Low. The longer he is out there, the more Malaysian police will lose credibility,” opined the academic, who referred to Low as Malaysia’s “Houdini.”

Matt Mulberry reported from New York City. Nile Bowie reported from Singapore.