A U.S. federal civil action alleging theft from Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund is nearly certain to prompt immediate calls by the Southeast Asian country’s political opposition for Prime Minister Najib Razak’s resignation.
While the legal case most likely will boost the weakened opposition bloc in Kuala Lumpur, it is not expected to quickly force out the entrenched leader.
Malaysia’s ruling UNMO party will rally behind Najib and blame “foreign powers, including the Jews,” for trying to topple a democratically elected government, opposition politician Charles Santiago predicted Wednesday.
“The opposition parties and NGOs will ask for the attorney general to investigate the accusations made in the U.S.,” Santiago, a member of parliament from the Democratic Action Party, told VOA. “This will not go far, as the attorney general’s office closed its case many months ago.”
$1 billion in assets
In the largest initiative of its kind by the U.S. Justice Department's Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, authorities desire to seize more than $1 billion worth of luxury real estate, artworks, jewelry and even rights to a Hollywood movie that authorities allege were obtained with assets stolen from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB fund, which Najib founded in 2009 and now is owned by the finance ministry that the prime minister controls.
“Unfortunately and tragically, a number of corrupt officials treated this public trust as a personal bank account,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch told reporters Wednesday.
"The Department of Justice will not allow the American financial system to be used as a conduit for corruption,” Lynch added. “Corrupt officials around the world should make no mistake that we will be relentless in our efforts to deny them the proceeds of their crimes.”
The suit alleges most of the misappropriated funds from 1MDB were moved to the co-founder of PetroSaudi International, an oil company that had a joint venture with 1MDB, and then to a high-ranking official with the Malaysian government identified only as "Malaysian Official One."
“This information should force Malaysian authorities to investigate” whether the prime minister is the person referenced as “Malaysian Official One,” said Santiago.
Asked why the official was not specifically identified, Lynch responded that the civil complaint only alleges “what we need to allege to obtain what we need to obtain.”
“There is no mistaking from this indictment that she is referring above all to Malaysia’s prime minister himself,” said the Sarawak Report, which in 2014 began looking into alleged improprieties with the 1MDB fund. The London-based online investigative news site is currently blocked in Malaysia.
Najib has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. A spokesman for the prime minister says the government will cooperate with any international probes. "As the prime minister has always maintained, if any wrongdoing is proven, the law will be enforced without exception."
The U.S. Justice Department lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles, claims officials close to Najib diverted more than $3.5 billion from the fund from 2009 to 2013, using money intended for economic development projects in Malaysia to buy the U.S. properties and pay for "lavish lifestyles.”
Najib’s stepson, Hollywood movie producer Riza Aziz, is listed as a "relevant individual." A Malaysian financier, Jho Low, and Abu Dhabi government officials Khadem al-Qubaisi and Mohamed Ahmed Badawy al-Husseiny also are named.
The United States alleges that Aziz used some of the misappropriated money to finance production of a popular 2013 U.S. movie, "The Wolf of Wall Street," a fictionalized account of a real-life financial swindler.
The people named in the legal action (U.S. v. “Wolf of Wall Street”) have not been charged with crimes, but criminal actions still could be brought, according to authorities.
Funds were laundered through bank accounts in the United States, as well as Luxembourg, Singapore and Switzerland, according to the court filing.
The suits claims the stolen funds were used to buy penthouses, mansions, artwork and a private jet, and to hire musicians and celebrities to attend parties.
Besides Malaysia and the United States, other governments have been investigating 1MDB, including Singapore and Switzerland.
Swiss prosecutors on Wednesday confirmed they were helping their American counterparts.