Thai cops arrest ex-PetroSaudi exec

He allegedly tried to blackmail firm in controversial project with 1MDB

A FORMER executive of PetroSaudi International, an energy company that carried out a controversial joint project with 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), has been arrested in Thailand for allegedly trying to blackmail his former employer. 

Thai police said Xavier Justo, a Swiss national, was arrested on Koh Samui island on Monday. His computer and other equipment "which the police believe may have been used in committing the offence" were taken away, a Thai police statement received by The Straits Times showed.

The arrest made headlines in Malaysia as Saudi-based PetroSaudi has been alleged in the media here of being involved in a project with 1MDB that was a genesis to the development fund's murky financials to this day.

PetroSaudi and 1MDB carried out an energy venture in 2009. The venture ended six months later with both 1MDB and the government claiming the state fund was able to regain its US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) investment and make a profit of US$488 million.

A series of allegations on the Sarawak Report blog, known for its critical views of Malaysia's government, and in The Edge business newspaper said part of the venture money was siphoned out, which 1MDB has denied.

A senior Thai policeman told the Thai media on Tuesday that Justo, 49, was paid the equivalent of 140 million baht (S$5.6 million) to leave PetroSaudi after he "behaved against the company's rules and regulations".

But Justo later demanded up to 2.5 million Swiss francs (S$3.6 million) from PetroSaudi in exchange for not disclosing confidential information, Mr Akaradech Pimonsri, acting commander of the Crime Suppression Division of Thai police, was quoted as saying by the Bangkok Post.

Justo was arrested on Koh Samui after an arrest warrant was issued by the Southern Bangkok Criminal Court, for alleged "attempted blackmail or attempted extortion", the police statement said.

It is not clear who had applied for the arrest warrant.

Justo has denied the charges. Thai police have identified him as an IT executive. Two company search websites listed the Swiss as a director in two companies under PetroSaudi.

Reports that are linked to debt-heavy 1MDB receive maximum coverage in Malaysia as it forms the core of the attacks being carried out by former premier Mahathir Mohamad against Prime Minister Najib Razak, who chairs the development fund's board of advisers. 1MDB is also wholly owned by Malaysia's Finance Ministry, which is led by PM Najib.

PetroSaudi on Tuesday said in a statement that with the arrest, the company would now be able to set the record straight.

It said it has been "the victims of a regrettable crime that has unfortunately been politicised in Malaysia". 

Adding to the drama surrounding the arrest and alleged leaks over months of confidential PetroSaudi data, the New Straits Times yesterday quoted Britain-based cyber security firm Protection Group International (PGI) as claiming that Justo was the source of the data published on the Sarawak Report.

"Our investigation is still ongoing, but it is clear that we are looking at a case of large-scale data theft… For example, when we looked into a PowerPoint file that was on one of the Sarawak Report's blogs, we found evidence in the metadata of that file that it had been handled by a certain 'Xavier' in 2013," an expert from PGI was quoted as saying.

PGI, which declined to name its client when queried yesterday, claimed its analysis found that the data was tampered with after it was stolen from PetroSaudi.

Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi yesterday warned The Edge and its owner Tong Kooi Ong that its publishing permit can be revoked over its reporting on 1MDB based on information that had been tampered with. 

asruls@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2015, with the headline 'Thai cops arrest ex-PetroSaudi exec'. Print Edition | Subscribe