Fugitive Malaysian businessman Low Taek Jho, also known as Jho Low, was sighted earlier this month in Ahmedabad, India, on a three-day visit to the country, according to law enforcement officials who spoke exclusively to Asia Times.
Local police monitored Low’s movements but did not move to apprehend the internationally wanted fugitive widely seen as the mastermind of the multi-billion dollar, globe-spanning 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) financial scandal, the same sources said.
On November 5, Low departed Ahmedabad’s Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport aboard a Gulfstream G200 private jet identified by the tail number HS-VNT, they added.
Chartered by Thailand-based charter airline MJets, the aircraft was bound for Al Maktoum International Airport in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), they said. Low could not be reached for comment for this article.
MJets, in correspondence to Asia Times, maintained that Low was not a passenger on the flight in question and that suggestions to the contrary are “untrue, unfounded and unsubstantiated.”
The Penang-born financier is wanted by authorities in the United States and Malaysia, where he faces charges in connection with the plunder of an estimated US$4.5 billion from 1MDB, a state investment fund established by then-prime minister Najib Razak.
Infamous for his playboy antics and extravagant spending, Low has been an international fugitive since November 2018, when the US Department of Justice (DoJ) charged him with three counts of conspiring to launder funds embezzled from 1MDB, bribing foreign government officials, and violating US campaign finance laws.
Information on Low’s whereabouts has since been scarce aside from persistent rumors that he has found safe haven in China and news reports placing him everywhere from Hong Kong and Macau to Bangkok and Dubai. Hard information pinning Low to a specific time, place, and itinerary, however, has until now been scarce.
Interpol issued a red notice against Low in June 2018 after national warrants for his arrest were issued by Malaysia and Singapore. That hasn’t significantly impeded the Malaysian fugitive’s movements, however.
Low is believed to hold multiple Mediterranean and Caribbean island nations’ passports obtained through investment-based citizenship schemes offered by states such as St Kitts and Nevis, Malta, and Cyprus.
Security experts believe he evades capture by flying in private jets and going through temporary immigration posts at private VIP lounges.
He is said to take advantage of so-called “ground butler services” available for VIPs and celebrities, which often do not require him to be present when his passport is presented at immigration checkpoints.
Police and immigration departments in Malaysia and Singapore believe Low may have even assumed a new identity or undergone facial reconstruction surgery.
While the purpose and outcome of his three-day visit to India’s fifth largest city remain unknown, the trip coincided with Low’s 38th birthday on November 4.
Reputed for throwing legendary birthday celebrations for himself in the past, Ahmedabad, the largest city in the state of Gujarat, is a somewhat unlikely location for a blowout party.
It is also unclear how long Low has allegedly used MJets’ services or how many times he has chartered this specific aircraft. According to data from FlightAware, a flight-tracking website, the G200’s flight to the UAE was the furthest destination from Bangkok it had travelled in at least three months and its only journey beyond South and East Asia.
A spokesman for the fugitive Malaysian said last week that he had been offered asylum in an unidentified country that better respected human rights and was not prone to political persecution, thinly veiled criticism of the treatment he believes he would receive if deported to Malaysia.
Low has consistently and resolutely denied responsibility for orchestrating what has been widely characterized as one of the biggest ever financial heists. He says charges against him are politicized and that he would be denied a fair trial in Malaysia.
Click here to read Asia Times’ report on Jho Low’s controversial US DoJ settlement.
Despite his claims of innocence, Low agreed to forfeit up to $1 billion in assets in a milestone deal reached last month with the US DoJ. The deal, which did not include an admission of guilt or responsibility, did not absolve his still pending criminal charges in the US.
It also included a controversial provision that allows him to pay $15 million to his legal team, led by former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a known political ally of US President Donald Trump, with what are believed to be pilfered 1MDB funds.
News reports in recent days have placed Low in the UAE, after his spokesperson reportedly claimed he had been spending time in unnamed Middle Eastern countries. Abdul Hamid Bador, Malaysia’s inspector-general of police, recently disputed those reports, citing the UAE’s strict security systems and cooperative ties with the Royal Malaysia Police (PDRM).
Low’s reputed presence in the Gulf Arab country would raise questions given that the International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC), a government-owned investment organization that manages Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund, controversially served as the guarantor for three 1MDB bond offerings, the proceeds of which Low allegedly later pilfered.
The DoJ’s forfeiture complaints filed in 2016 against US assets bought with stolen 1MDB funds implicated two executives, Mohammed Badawy al Husseiny and Khadem al Qubaisi, of Aabar Investments, an IPIC subsidiary, who allegedly received millions in kickbacks after signing onto Low’s widely seen as duplicitous fund-raising scheme.
In June 2019, both men were sentenced to 10 and 15 years in prison respectively for crimes that matched allegations laid out in the DoJ’s complaint. Given that IPIC sees itself as a victim of Low’s scheme, the ease with which the fugitive Malaysian businessman was apparently able to travel to the UAE is puzzling.
Low’s stopover in India also coincides with an uptick in friction between India and Malaysia following Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s criticism of New Delhi over its policy towards Kashmir, a disputed Muslim-majority region also claimed by Pakistan, which last month prompted Indian traders to urge a boycott of Malaysian palm oil.
Malaysian authorities have also defied India’s request to extradite fugitive Islamic televangelist Zakir Naik, who is wanted in India on radicalization and money laundering charges. Putrajaya has refused to deport the Indian national despite requests for his extradition on the grounds that he would not receive a fair trial there.
Naik has been living in Malaysia, where he has permanent resident status, for approximately three years. Malaysian authorities recently came under pressure to act against him after the Mumbai-born preacher made racially sensitive remarks in August that suggested Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese minority group should be expelled.
After the incident, police banned him from speaking in public and questioned him for hours over the comments. Mahathir had said Naik’s permanent resident status would hinge on the outcome of police investigations, but there have been no developments in the case since, prompting comparisons with Malaysia’s own hunt for Low.
“Keeping Zakir Naik in Malaysia instead of deporting him to India has certainly affected the Mahathir government’s ability to get Jho Low repatriated to Malaysia,” said Mustafa Izzuddin, a political analyst at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Institute of South Asian Studies.
“The Mahathir government cannot claim the moral high ground on Jho Low because of its continued obstinance over deporting Zakir Naik,” he added.
Click here to read Asia Times’ report on the Zakir Naik controversy.
Mahathir has tilted Malaysia’s foreign policy closer to Pakistan, Mustafa said, noting that “Malaysia-India relations may be stagnant or regressing, but certainly not in danger of rupturing” over the issue.
“The hope of the Mahathir government is to not talk about Zakir Naik so that it does not become a news story. But so long as Malaysia brings up Jho Low, Zakir Naik will be mentioned in the same breath because of the political hypocrisy and applying a double-standard,” the academic told Asia Times.
Political scientist Chandra Muzaffar pointed to past remarks by Mahathir, who has suggested the Muslim cleric could be killed if he is returned to India, where reports of religious intolerance and hate crimes against Muslims have spiked under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
But Low’s claim that he would be denied a fair trial in Malaysia is less convincing, according to Muzaffar.
He said that ongoing hearings against Najib – who faces the possibility of life in prison on graft, money laundering, abuse of power and criminal breach of trust charges – have so far been legitimate and fair.
“If you look at the ongoing case involving Najib and the way the prosecution and defense have put across their case, at points raising counter-arguments and so forth, one doesn’t get the impression that the trial is skewed in favor of the state,” he said. “I don’t think Jho Low would be able to argue that he’s going to be persecuted if he comes back.”
Matt Mulberry reported from New York City. Nile Bowie reported from Singapore.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include MJets’ denial that Jho Low was onboard the November 5 chartered flight from Ahmedabad, India’s Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport to Al Maktoum International Airport in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE).