U.S. begins return of $200 million in 1MDB funds to Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - The U.S. government has begun returning to Malaysia some $200 million recovered from asset seizures linked to state fund 1MDB, with about a quarter of the amount already repatriated, the two countries said on Tuesday.

FILE PHOTO: Motorcyclists pass a 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) billboard at the Tun Razak Exchange development in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 3, 2016. REUTERS/Olivia Harris/File Photo

Malaysian and U.S. authorities say about $4.5 billion were allegedly siphoned from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state fund founded in 2009 by then Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak.

Since losing a general election last year, Najib has been charged with more than 40 criminal offences linked to losses at 1MDB and other state entities. He has pleaded not guilty.

Since 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ), in the biggest ever case in its anti-kleptocracy program, has filed civil lawsuits seeking to seize about $1.7 billion in assets allegedly bought with stolen 1MDB funds, including a private jet, luxury real estate, artwork, and jewelry.

The United States will return to Malaysia about $196 million in the first installment of funds recovered from the asset seizures, U.S. ambassador to Malaysia, Kamala Shirin Lahkdhir, said in a statement.

“We are extremely pleased that this first tranche of assets from this Justice Department investigation is being transferred back to Malaysia, demonstrating the U.S. commitment to return these assets for the benefit of the people of Malaysia,” she said.

So far, $57 million has been returned to Malaysia following a settlement reached with Hollywood film production company Red Granite Pictures, which is linked to Najib’s stepson Riza Aziz, Malaysia’s Attorney General Tommy Thomas said in a statement.

Red Granite had paid the U.S. government $60 million in September 2017 to settle a civil forfeiture claim over the rights to the 2013 Oscar-nominated film The Wolf of Wall Street, which the DoJ says was financed with 1MDB funds.

A deduction of $3 million from the settlement was made to reimburse costs incurred by U.S. authorities in “investigating, seizing, litigating and securing settlement of the Red Granite funds,” Thomas said.

The DoJ is also in the process of remitting another $139 million, pending the sale of a Manhattan property linked to fugitive Malaysian financier, Low Taek Jho or Jho Low, Thomas said.

Low is facing criminal charges in Malaysia and the United States over his alleged central role in the 1MDB case. He has consistently denied wrongdoing and his whereabouts is unknown.

The latest money returned by the United States brings the total amount recovered by Malaysia to $322 million. This includes $126 million from the sale of a 300-ft luxury yacht allegedly bought by Low with 1MDB funds, Thomas said.

Singapore authorities have also ordered a separate return of S$50 million ($36.70 million) in 1MDB-linked funds to Malaysia, he added.

At least six countries, including the United States, Singapore and Switzerland, are investigating alleged graft and money laundering at 1MDB.

($1 = 1.3623 Singapore dollars)

Reporting by Joseph Sipalan; Editing by Michael Perry