Indonesian police probing if crew of luxury yacht sought in 1MDB probe violated immigration rules

Indonesian police seized the yacht Equanimity on Feb 28, off the resort island of Bali.
Indonesian police seized the yacht Equanimity on Feb 28, off the resort island of Bali.PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA - Indonesian police questioned officers from the immigration office and the Benoa Harbour authority on Friday (March 2) after seizing a luxury yacht allegedly owned by Malaysian financier Jho Low.

They seized the yacht Equanimity on Wednesday off the resort island of Bali, at the request of US authorities investigating alleged money laundering at Malaysian state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

The police are investigating if the yacht's crew had violated immigration procedures to enter Indonesian waters and are looking into the purpose of the vessel's visit in Bali, reported Jakarta Post.

"We are still in the process of matching the data we get from the yacht with the data we get from the FBI (US Federal Bureau of Investigation)," Senior Commander Daniel Tahi Monang Silitonga, deputy director for financial crimes at the National Police's detective unit, was quoted as saying.

According to the police, the yacht entered Bali's Benoa Harbour on Nov 20 last year, but its movements after arriving remain unknown.

The police questioned the South African captain of the yacht, identified as Rolf Sieboldt-Berry, and two other crew members on Thursday. They suspect the skipper deliberately turned off the automated identification system (AIS) during its voyage in Indonesian waters to avoid pursuit by the FBI, tribunnews.com reported.

A total of 29 crew members of various nationalities are under police custody on board the vessel.

Rando Purba, the lawyer of the yacht's crew, said his clients deny the allegation that they tried to avoid FBI pursuit, saying the yacht entered Indonesia for vacation purposes.

"It was to enjoy Indonesia," Rando told The Jakarta Post.

The captain, Rando said, had to turn off the AIS to "evade pirates" in the Andaman Sea before entering Phuket in Thailand. From Phuket, the yacht continued its trip to Bali with the AIS turned on, he added.

"The crew received warning from local authorities on the way from Colombo to Phuket that they were in a piracy-prone zone. They sent the warning to all yachts crossing the Andaman Sea, not only to this yacht."

The Cayman Island-registered yacht was reported to have travelled to at least five tourist spots in Indonesia, including Raja Ampat, in West Papua, and Maluku Islands.

Rando confirmed that Equanimity arrived in Indonesia last November and had travelled to several spots in the archipelago to entertain guests.

"The guests stayed in resorts where the yacht stopped. They had no guests staying on the yacht during the police raid," Rando said.

He also told Malaysiakini that Sieboldt-Berry told investigators he did not know who owned the vessel.

"As far as the captain is concerned, what he knows was that the yacht is owned by a company registered in Cayman Islands. He doesn't know the person behind the company because he did not see its (registration) documents," said Rando.

The 91m-long vessel has a spa, a beauty salon, a gym, a sauna, a Turkish bath and a large swimming pool, as well as a helicopter pad.

Low's whereabouts are unknown. But in a statement on Wednesday, his spokesman described the seizure of the Equanimity as an "overreach" by the US authorities.

1MDB is at the centre of money-laundering probes in at least six countries, including the United States, Switzerland and Singapore.

A total of US$4.5 billion was misappropriated from 1MDB by high-level officials of the fund and their associates, according to civil lawsuits filed by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) in the past two years.

In August 2017, the DOJ asked for a stay on its civil lawsuits seeking to seize more than US$1.7 billion in assets allegedly bought with stolen 1MDB funds because it was conducting a related criminal probe.

Among the assets sought is Equanimity, cited as a US$250 million luxury yacht bought by Low, named as a key figure in the US lawsuits. The lawsuits said Low used proceeds diverted from 1MDB to buy the yacht.