KUALA LUMPUR - Fugitive businessman Low Taek Jho has claimed that millions of dollars siphoned from 1MDB, Malaysia's debt-ridden state fund, were merely "loans" to him.
Low made these claims in a series of conversations with a Malaysian government representative, which were released by Al Jazeera on Tuesday (Nov 17).
Commonly known as Jho Low, the fallen businessman reportedly made the remarks on recorded phone conversations between May and November 2018.
That was after Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad's coalition won the 2018 elections in Malaysia, unseating Najib's long-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.
Low's revelations during the calls appeared to be an attempt to bargain for his freedom. He has been a fugitive from law in both Singapore and Malaysia since 2016.
In the recorded conversations, Low said he believed that he had not committed any wrongdoing. He described the millions of 1MDB money that he had used to increase his own personal wealth and assets as "loans".
"All these ultimately were loans, directly or indirectly... I think the time has come, we want to assist in repatriating these assets back... and moving on with life without, you know, being prosecuted," Low said during the calls.
The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) had estimated that at least US$4.5 billion (S$6 billion) was looted from 1MDB, which was set up as Malaysia's sovereign wealth fund, during Najib's tenure as prime minister. Low has two Interpol red notices and a US arrest warrant against him.
Yet he has remained a fugitive for the past four years. The recordings are the first time he has made any public remarks regarding his role in the scandal.
Low asserted that the blame for the scandal lay at the feet of Najib, who, as the finance minister, had the power to authorise the transfer of monies belonging to 1MDB. He also claimed that he had spent north of US$500 million in buying jewellery and luxury items for Najib's wife, Rosmah Mansor, using 1MDB monies.
"I have no authority to make any decision… It's a pretty known fact that… all the approvals have to be approved by the minister of finance," he said in the recordings.
Low also poured cold water on Najib's years-long claim that some US$700 million that ended up in Najib's personal account was a "donation" by Saudi Arabia's late King Abdullah.
"The reality is, it is true that King Abdullah actually agreed to give a donation to the PM, but that was a small portion of the larger portion," Low said.
Najib, who faces 42 counts of corruption and money laundering related to the 1MDB scandal, was convicted on seven of the charges by the Malaysian High Court in July. He is currently out on bail pending an appeal with the Court of Appeals.
At the time of the phone calls, Low was reportedly in China, and skipped a meeting that was scheduled to take place with his Malaysian government contact in Macau.
His Malaysian passport has been cancelled and his St Kitts and Nevis passport has also been deactivated. But Al Jazeera cited flight records showing Low's travel footprint included moving from Bangkok to Dubai via India as recent as November 2019 on a privately chartered flight, using yet another passport issued by the Caribbean nation of Grenada.
According to the report, Low has been living in Macau, an autonomous administrative region of China, since 2018.
Former finance minister Daim Zainuddin, who served as a key adviser to Dr Mahathir's administration, said in 2018 and 2019 that Low had tried to reach out to him to negotiate immunity from the government and also to offer help on the East Coast Rail Link project negotiations.
Tun Daim told The Straits Times on Tuesday "he never spoke to him (Low)".
A lawyer for Najib, Muhammad Farhan Muhammad Shafee, told the Free Malaysia Today news site in a text message: “Of course he will sing to whatever tune that can save himself! A self-serving statement such as this must be taken with a shovel of salt.”
Additional reporting by Leslie Lopez