US move to seize assets piles pressure on Malaysian PM

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Pressure mounted Thursday on Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, with lawmakers demanding he go on leave and be held accountable after U.S. officials initiated action to seize more than $1 billion they say was stolen from a state investment fund by people close to the premier.

That fund, known as 1MDB, was created in 2009 by Najib shortl after he took office to promote economic development projects. Instead, U.S. prosecutors said, fund officials diverted more than $3.5 billion through a web of shell companies and bank accounts in Singapore, Switzerland, Luxembourg and the U.S.

The diverted funds paid for luxury properties in New York and California, a $35 million jet, art by Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet and helped finance the Hollywood film, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” according to federal government complaints that demand the recovery and forfeiture of the ill-gotten assets.

The opposition leader in Parliament, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, said Najib must give a full explanation in Parliament and go on leave to ensure a full and transparent probe.

It was echoed by civil society group Bersih, which said Najib and the attorney-general — who cleared Najib of any wrongdoing in January — should immediately resign to allow for independent investigations.

Lawmaker Lim Kit Siang warned that Malaysia was “careening down the slope to becoming a failed, rogue state.” While Najib was not named, he was directly implicated in the complaints and must be accountable, Lim said.

Najib has not commented on the U.S. actions, but has said previously that he has done nothing wrong.

Najib’s press secretary Tengku Sarifuddin said in a statement that 1MDB has been the subject of multiple investigations in Malaysia and that the attorney-general has found that no crimes were committed.

He said the government will cooperate in any lawful investigations and that “if any wrongdoing is proven, the law will be enforced without exception.”

The attorney-general cleared Najib of criminal wrongdoing in January, saying $681 million in his bank accounts was a donation from the Saudi royal family and not from 1MDB, with most of it returned.

Communications Minister Salleh Said Keruak said 1MDB has been the subject of an “unprecedented politically motivated attack” aimed at unseating the premier.

He said any claims relating to 1MDB must be “treated with caution” and “no one should rush to judgment before allegations are proven in court.”

The U.S. complaints, filed in Los Angeles, allege a complex money-laundering scheme that the Justice Department says was intended to enrich top-level officials of the government-controlled fund.

About $1.3 billion raised through purportedly legitimate bond offerings was swiftly transferred to a Swiss bank account and, from there, distributed to fund officials for their personal benefit.

The complaints identify by name several people closed to Najib that the government alleges profited from the scheme.

Among them is Najib’s stepson, Riza Shahriz Abdul Aziz, who co-founded movie production studio Red Granite Pictures, and businessman Low Taek Jho who is close to Najib’s family.

According to the complaint, eleven wire transfers totaling $64 million were used to fund the studio’s operations, including the production of the 2013 movie “The Wolf of Wall Street” starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

The Justice Department described Riza in the complaint as a relative of an unnamed “Malaysian Official 1” — whose approval was needed for the fund’s financial commitments.

Najib heads the fund’s advisory board, which was dissolved two months ago.

“In seeking to seize these forfeited items, the Department of Justice is sending a message that we will not allow the United States to become a playground for the corrupt,” Eileen Decker, the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles, said at a news conference. “And we will not allow it to be a platform for money laundering or a place to hide and invest in stolen riches.”

The Justice Department says the forfeiture demand is the largest single action it’s taken. The money the government wants to recover reflects the amount officials were able to trace through the U.S. financial system.

1MDB is the subject of investigations in several countries including Singapore, which on Thursday said it had seized assets worth 240 million Singapore dollars ($176 million) in its probe on possible money laundering linked to 1MDB.

The U.S. action is a blow to Najib but analysts said he remained politically secure after moving last year to strengthen his grip on power by replacing critics in his government and party with men loyal to him.

“He is still politically safe. There isn’t any immediate or real challenge to his leadership,” said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, who heads the think-tank Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs.

The U.S. action may strain its ties with Malaysia, an ally in the fight against terrorism, but there should not be any long-term implications, he said.