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US agrees US$1b 1MDB forfeiture deal with Malaysia's Jho Low

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Jho Low will relinquish the assets under the largest ever US civil forfeiture, intended to recover cash allegedly stolen in the 1MDB scandal which helped topple Malaysia's corruption-plagued former regime.

[NEW YORK] The US Justice Department on Wednesday reached its biggest civil forfeiture deal in agreeing to recover almost US$1 billion in funds Malaysian financier Jho Low and his family had allegedly misappropriated from Malaysian state fund 1MDB.

US authorities say about US$4.5 billion were siphoned from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), founded in 2009 by then Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak.

Since 2016, the Justice Department, in the biggest ever case in its anti-kleptocracy programme, has filed civil lawsuits seeking to seize about US$1.7 billion in assets allegedly bought with stolen 1MDB funds.

Low, who called the agreement "historic" in a statement issued on his behalf, faces charges in both the United States and Malaysia over his central role in the scandal.

Low agreed to give up a private jet, high-end real estate in Beverly Hills, New York and London and other assets totaling US$700 million, the Justice Department said in a statement and court document filed on Wednesday.

That's on top of a US$126-million yacht and US$140 million in other assets previously forfeited. If approved, the settlement will mark the largest civil forfeiture ever concluded by the Justice Department, it said.

"The message in this case is simple: the United States is not a safe haven for pilfered funds," said US Attorney Nicola T. Hanna of the Central District of California.

The deal does not include an admission of guilt or wrongdoing and is not tied to the criminal action against Low.

"I am very pleased to confirm that a landmark comprehensive, global settlement has been reached with the United States government," Low said in the statement.

The settlement also includes assets in the United Kingdom and Switzerland, as well as funds from the sale of Low's stake in EMI music publishing group.

The parties have also agreed to cooperate on settling the suits on other assets, including diamond jewellery and paintings by Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh, the court filing said.

The proposed settlement was filed in a California court on Wednesday and needs to be approved by a judge.

1MDB is the subject of corruption and money laundering investigations in at least six countries.

Malaysian police last year filed charges and issued arrest warrants for Low and several of his associates, whose whereabouts are unknown.

Low, who has consistently denied wrongdoing, is ready to address 1MDB-related issues in Malaysia and elsewhere provided the conditions are right for him, his spokesman said.

"If and when Mr Low is confident that he will be safe and treated fairly, he looks forward to addressing any remaining issues," the spokesman told Reuters.

Low has, however, said he does not expect to get a fair deal in Malaysia as long as Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is in power.

Malaysian government officials did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment on the settlement.

'MULTI-YEAR CONSPIRACY'

Officials in Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates, Wall Street bank Goldman Sachs Group Inc and Deutsche Bank have all been caught up in probes into the multi-year conspiracy.

Goldman said earlier this month it was cooperating with the Justice Department and other government and regulatory investigations.

Malaysia has filed criminal charges against Goldman and 17 current and former directors of the bank's units for allegedly misleading investors over bond sales totalling US$6.5 billion that the bank helped raise for 1MDB.

Prosecutors on Thursday asked for the case against three Goldman units to be moved to a higher court.

Allegations that about US$1 billion in 1MDB funds flowed into Najib's personal accounts fuelled anger among Malaysians, who voted his long-ruling coalition out of power in an election last May.

Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, were barred from leaving Malaysia soon after the election loss, and their lifestyle came under scrutiny, with the discovery of nearly US$300 million worth of goods and cash at properties linked to him.

Najib now faces years in prison after being hit with 42 criminal charges related to losses at 1MDB and other government entities. He has consistently denied wrongdoing.

A Malaysian court will rule on Nov 11 on whether to acquit Najib or call for him to enter his defence, in the first of several criminal trials against him.

REUTERS

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