By Hadi Azmi
Malaysian police said Friday they found close to U.S. $29 million in cash in suitcases confiscated during raids last week on Kuala Lumpur residences linked to former Prime Minister Najib Razak.
The searches of at least six properties connected to Najib’s family in and around the Malaysian capital were done as part of an investigation into a massive financial scandal around a state fund known as 1MDB, officials said at the time.
Also on Friday, the country’s new finance minister said he asked tax officials to probe whether Malaysian tycoon Low Taek Jho – better known as Jho Low – was holding assets or profits linked to the sovereign wealth fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad.
Najib, the ex-PM whose ruling coalition lost a general election on May 9, has denied allegations that he took money from 1MDB.
The huge amount of cash in 26 currencies was found in 35 suitcases seized from an unoccupied unit in the Pavilion Residences, a luxury condominium building in Kuala Lumpur, during a raid on May 18, the chief of the national police’s Commercial Crime Investigation Division told reporters Friday.
“I can confirm since 21 May to 23 May 2018, with the assistance of 21 officers from Bank Negara (Central Bank) and one officer from the Islamic Bank, we sat down and counted the money in the 35 bags out of 72 bags,” CCID Director Amar Singh Ishar Singh said.
The bulk of the cash was in Malaysian ringgit and Singaporean dollars.
“The total amount of this as of yesterday, 24 May, is RM 114 million [U.S. $28.75 million],” Singh said.
The other confiscated bags contained jewelry and luxury watches, which the police were planning to authenticate starting Monday with help from experts, Singh said.
During the 28-hour raid at the Pavilion Residences, CCID officers also seized 284 boxes containing handbags, mostly from the high-end Hermés Birkin line, the senior police official said.
“We have had discussions with Hermés, and we will take pictures and send them to Paris to verify their authenticity and their value,” he said.
‘Doesn’t my daughter deserve wedding gifts?’
The May 18 raid targeted three apartments in the condo building, two of which were occupied by Najib’s son and daughter, Norashman and Nooryana. Police found the 72 suitcases and 284 boxes in the unoccupied third unit, officials said.
The raids were among searches conducted by police with warrants at various locations, including Najib’s former office as prime minister and his main home, Singh said. But he declined to reveal the names of the owners of the three condo units.
Najib has criticized the police raids on his and his children’s residence as being illegal. The luxury items were gifts from friends and the packets of cash were donations for his Barisan Nasional coalition’s election campaign, media reports quoted him as saying.
During their search of his daughter’s apartment, police said they had confiscated another 150 luxury handbags. They also seized luxury watches and at least 50 more handbags, as well as 500,000 ringgit ($125,620) in cash, during their search of Najib’s main house.
“What has 1MDB got to do with wedding gifts?” Najib said Sunday while addressing a crowd of his supporters in Pekan, his parliamentary constituency, referring to items seized from his daughter’s house, which included wedding gifts and baby shoes for his grandson.
“Doesn’t my daughter deserve wedding gifts? She is married to someone who can afford it in Kazakhstan,” the former PM said.
Najib’s daughter is married to Daniyar Kessikbayev, nephew of the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
“If they want to take items, they must have proof. There must be a prima facie case against me that the items were illegally obtained,” Najib told the crowd.
“The people of Pekan know me. I am not a thief. I am not a rogue,” he said. “To topple the party, they had to target the president. They would do anything as long as my brand was destroyed.”
Police said the confiscated cash was being kept at the Central Bank while all of the seized jewelry and luxury items were under lock and key at police headquarters in Bukit Aman.
In addition, police said they were holding onto documents related to 1MDB that were confiscated during searches at a host of sites in Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya, Malaysia’s administrative capital.
UMNO wants money back
After Barisan Nasional lost the election two weeks ago, Najib and his wife were barred from leaving the country as the new government launched an investigation into the 1MDB corruption scandal. He has since also resigned as president of both Barisan and its anchor party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).
On Thursday, UMNO, which dominated Malaysian politics for 61 years until its May 9 defeat, issued a statement implying that the money confiscated by police during the raids on Najib-linked properties was in fact the party’s money.
As UMNO’s president, Najib was responsible for obtaining and managing such funds, including money that was supposed to be used for the general election, the statement said.
UMNO asked the police to return the money.
“It is sad to say that the balance of campaign and party funds has been seized by the police while it is in a process to be transferred to UMNO’s new leadership after Dato Sri Najib’s resignation as president of UMNO and BN,” the party said.
“UMNO is currently in the process of rebuilding the party and the return of the party’s fund will assist in the process,” it added.
Probe ordered against Jho Low
Meanwhile, Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng said in a tweet Friday that he had asked the Internal Revenue Board “to investigate Jho Low and his family in relation to any of his [tax] returns or anything received in the 1MDB scandal.”
Jho Low is at the center of investigations by the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) into the alleged laundering of billions of dollars that, it says, were looted from 1MDB and used to purchase high-priced real estate, art pieces and other valuable items.
DOJ has been trying to seize a $250 million yacht, which it alleges was purchased by Jho Low with laundered 1MDB money. But last month, an Indonesian judge agreed to release the ship, the Equanimity, after Indonesian police and FBI agents had seized it off Bali in late February.
Jho Low has denied any criminal role in the 1MDB affair, but his whereabouts are unknown.
The DOJ has described the affair as “the worst kleptocracy scandal in recent times,” pointing out that more than $4.5 billion (17.9 billion ringgit) was stolen from the fund since its inception in 2009.
When U.S. prosecutors filed a civil forfeiture case related to 1MDB in July 2016, they described a breathtaking level of fraud in which more than $730 million of what seemed to be 1MDB money was rerouted in a maze of transactions before ultimately landing in the personal bank accounts of “Malaysia Official 1,” a veiled reference to Najib.
Najib has denied any criminal wrongdoing, saying the money deposited into his bank accounts was a donation from a Saudi prince.