Malaysian fugitive tried to buy ‘golden passport’ to EU, report says

Jho Low, wanted in connection with $4.5bn theft, tried to buy off-the-shelf citizenship from Cyprus, report states

A Malaysian fugitive wanted in connection with one of the biggest frauds in history attempted to buy a “golden passport” that would have granted him unrestricted access to the EU, according to a report.

Jho Low, who is sought by law enforcement for his alleged role in the theft of more than $4.5bn (£3.3bn) from the government and people of Malaysia, sought the help of a passport brokerage called Henley & Partners to help him buy off-the-shelf citizenship from Cyprus, the report states.

The country is one of several EU countries that engages in “citizenship-by-investment”, whereby wealthy individuals can invest in property or government bonds in exchange for visas or passports. The practice is highly controversial, in part because a passport from one EU member state in effect grants the bearer unrestricted access to all others.

The schemes have also proven to be attractive to high-risk individuals, such as money launderers or corrupt politicians from countries where the rule of law is weak.

The joint report by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and Sarawak Report, a Malaysian investigative journalism outlet, states that Low signed a contract with Henley & Partners in 2015 for help acquiring Cypriot citizenship.

Henley & Partners has previously denied any relationship with Low. A spokesperson told reporters the company declined Low as a client because he failed to pass its internal due diligence checks.

Instead, however, it referred him to a third agency. Invoices seen by the reporters show Henley & Partners issuing invoices to other Cypriot companies for work relating to Low’s application for a golden passport.

They also obtained leaked emails that appear to show the head of Henley’s Cypriot office corresponding directly with Low and detailing the steps necessary to help him invest in a property as part of his golden passport application. The company directed Low to transfer €6m (£5.3m) to an escrow account to cover the cost of the property, according to the report.

However, in November 2016 – five months after the US Department of Justice had publicly identified him as a conspirator in the 1MDB fraud – Low reportedly sought Henley & Partners’ help acquiring an alternative, larger property.

A spokesperson for Henley & Partners told the reporters that “we remain entirely certain that the firm did nothing wrong”, but conceded that “it may be that some individual staff members involved at the time did not act as one team, or failed to adhere to the new procedures or did not exercise a sufficient level of judgment as to their interaction with real estate partners”.

Low, who has been widely reported to be in China, has previously denied any wrongdoing. However, the disclosure of further details of his attempt to procure a Cypriot golden passport will place the scandal-ridden scheme under further scrutiny.

Last year the country announced a suspension of the programme after undercover journalists at Al Jazeera filmed Cypriot lawmakers agreeing to help a fictitious Chinese criminal procure access to the country.

In 2017 the Guardian reported on a leaked list of programme applicants including various Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs, as well as a Syrian businessman placed under sanctions by the US for corruption.

In October last year, the European commission launched legal action against both Cyprus and Malta, which runs its own golden passport scheme, over concerns that the programmes were devaluing the concept of EU citizenship by awarding passports to individuals without a genuine link to either country.

Paddy Blewer, the group head of communications for Henley & Partners, reiterated in a statement to the Guardian that Low was referred to a third party and not accepted as a direct client.

“The group executive committee of Henley & Partners has long since recognised that the firm should not benefit in any way from any individual who has been rejected, for any reason,” he said.

He said new safeguards had since been adopted to prevent similar situations occurring, and that staff and executives involved in the transaction had since left the firm.

Published: 3 February 2021

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