Asylum antics: Jho Low’s case puts international asylum mechanisms under the spotlight

Billionaire Jho Low at the Children's National Hospital in Washington DCPhoto: Facebook/Jho Low

The businessman accused of orchestrating the 1MDB scandal secured asylum from an unnamed country. The move complicates efforts to bring him to justice.

By Zachary Frye

In 2017, Low Taek Jho, a Malaysian businessman known as Jho Low, was accused of masterminding an elaborate scheme to defraud Malaysian taxpayers, known as the Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.

The fund, ostensibly started to benefit the people of Malaysia, was instead used as a slush fund for the rich and powerful.

Jho Low allegedly orchestrated the funnelling of money directly into the personal bank accounts of former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and his associates. With US$4.5 billion unaccounted for, US$731 million of which is suspected to have been channelled into Najib’s personal accounts, the 1MDB scandal is Malaysia’s and the US Department of Justice’s largest anti-kleptocracy case to date.

Prime Minister Najib created the 1MDB fund in 2009, the same year he was elected. By 2013, there were already suspicions of criminal activity. The fund had changed auditors three times since its inception, prompting concerns among members of parliament (MPs).  

Low reportedly went on a spending spree as the scheme, purchasing a yacht, an original Monet painting and a US$31 million Manhattan condominium, among other items.

Former Malysian prime minister Najib Razak speaking at
Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Photo: Michael Wuertenberg

After Najib left office in 2018, the incoming Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamed, opened a full investigation, appointing PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) to carry out a financial review of the fund. The review found 81 people and 55 companies were implicated in diverting public funds to 400 bank accounts.

Low has no intention of standing trial

Jho Low faces charges in the U.S. and Malaysia for his alleged involvement in the scandal. Before arrest warrants could be carried out, however, he went on the run and remains at large.

The financier claims that he acted as an “intermediary.” According to Low, he merely facilitated relationships. He says the real blame should be placed on the financial institutions that moved the money.

Low argues a trial in either country would be unfair and has dismissed charges against him as politically motivated. Low was granted asylum in August 2019 in an unnamed country on the basis of political persecution.

His asylum status hinders international efforts to bring justice in the case. The onus is on the U.S. and Malaysian justice systems to determine Low’s guilt but under the protection of a third country, he could avoid prosecution indefinitely.

Jho Low is abusing the asylum mechanism

Modern asylum law stems from Article 14 of the United Nation’s 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, which states: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”

However, the right may be revoked if genuine prosecutions of “non-political crimes” or from “acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations” arise.

In a recent interview, Low says the country that gave him asylum is acting in “accordance with the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights…”

Promotional material for 1MDB.
Photo: Jorge Láscar/CC BY 2.0 with changes.

The problem, however, there isn’t any evidence to suggest that Low is a genuine asylum seeker. The notion that his human rights are being abused because his home country wants to try him for international money laundering isn’t reasonable. Asylum was intended to shield individuals from undue persecution, not to be used as a tool to evade justice.

While claims of unjust judicial procedures should be taken seriously, there is no sign that they are relevant in Jho Low’s case.

Since his disappearance, Low has reportedly used every means available to evade capture, including airport “ground butler services” to ensure immigration passage, the use of multiple passports and even plastic surgery to help assume a new identity.

Malaysia’s patchy human rights record undermines its calls for Low’s return

Malaysian prosecutors will lament Low’s abuse of international asylum laws; however, the domestic justice system is not without blame.

International human rights organisation, including Human Rights Watch, have criticised Malaysia’s record on politically motivated charges. Most recently, in October, Malaysian police arrested 12 people, including two politicians, and held them for more than two weeks without trial.

Malaysian authorities cannot decry Low’s abuse of international law while simultaneously violating international human rights standards within its justice system. The episode undermines Malaysia’s commitment to due judicial process and the principle of a fair trial for all and gives undue credit to Low’s asylum claims.

Mahathir’s hints that Malaysian authorities could abduct Low and forcibly return him to the country do nothing to instil faith in Malaysia’s commitment to international law. The prime minister has suggested that Malaysia “do a Mossad and get our hands on him” and “bring him back to Malaysia kicking and screaming.”

Malaysia is also harbouring a fugitive of its own. Zakir Naik, an Indian preacher, stands accused of spreading extremism and money laundering. The Islamic cleric allegedly used his Peace TV channel to encourage terrorism and has been linked to the 2016 café attack in Dhaka.

Malaysian authorities have decline India's extradition request for extremist Islamic preacher Zakir Naik.
Malaysian authorities have decline India’s extradition request for extremist Islamic preacher Zakir Naik.
Photo: BMN Network

The Indian government made a formal extradition request for the preacher in the first week of January which was reportedly declined by Malaysian authorities over concerns he would not face a fair trial.

Low’s repatriation looks unlikely in the short term

Despite the UN guidelines, many countries draft asylum policies based on ideology and other domestic concerns. This means that international asylum law, while an important framework, isn’t uniformly carried out. Low is using these irregularities to his advantage, and Malaysian officials aren’t happy about it.

“We have sought the countries’ cooperation to send him [Jho Low] back, but he seems to get a kind of immunity and protection from the authorities in those countries,” said Tan Sri Abdul Hamid Bador, Malaysia’s Inspector-General of Police.

“This is a crime, he robbed money of a country [sic] and given asylum in another,” he added.

Alleged crimes like these cannot go unpunished. It would be an injustice for the millions of Malaysian citizens that the money was originally intended to benefit.

Instead of facilitating Low’s evasion of the law, the unnamed country should live up to its international obligations and implement asylum laws as they were intended. But the episode offers a moment for Malaysian introspection. It must lead by example and address the rights abuses and flaws within its own justice system. Only by strengthening its commitment to international human rights and the legal process can it criticise Low’s protectors in good faith. Low is unlikely to be repatriated any time soon, much to the disappointment of Malaysian taxpayers. But the Malaysian government can ensure that the lessons of 1MDB and Jho Low’s evasion of justice are learnt in another way: through an increased commitment to international human rights and the principles of a fair trial for all.

About the Author

Zachary Frye
Zach is a writer and researcher based in Bangkok. He studied Political Science at DePaul University and International Relations at Harvard. Interests include human rights, political affairs, and the intersections of culture and religion.