Visitors pose for photos at the British-themed Londoner, the latest supercasino to open in Macau, the tiny Chinese territory that rakes in more money a year from gambling than Las Vegas. There are plenty of backdrop options: a double-decker bus, red phone booths, a London Underground car and a statue of Winston Churchill outside a mock 10 Downing Street. Over on the casino floor, other guests play blackjack or dai sai, a Chinese dice game similar to craps. Signs on most tables advertise a minimum bet equivalent to $350 or higher.
Measuring just 30 square kilometres – less than a 10th the size of the Island of Montreal – and packed with tourists with little to do to pass the time but gamble, Macau is not the most obvious hiding spot for an international fugitive. But according to the Malaysian authorities, for five years it has served as just that for one of the world’s most notorious white collar criminals: a man known as Jho Low.
According to prosecutors in Malaysia, the United States and Singapore, Low Thaek Jho, 41, allegedly helped mastermind the systematic looting of 1MDB, a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund. In total, they allege roughly US$4.5-billion was stolen by Mr. Low and other conspirators, including former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, jailed last year. The money was used to pay for yachts, jewellery, property, and to fund Martin Scorsese’s 2013 movie The Wolf of Wall Street.
Since the scandal blew up in 2018, Mr. Low has been on the run, communicating only through occasional statements or his lawyers. On a now defunct website he set up, the financier said he “maintains his innocence” and urged the public to “keep an open mind regarding this case.”
Mr. Low promised that the truth would eventually come to light and that he would be vindicated, but over the past five years he has avoided appearing in court in either Malaysia or the U.S., unlike many of his alleged co-conspirators, who also included senior Goldman Sachs bankers, foreign officials and 1MDB employees.
Malaysian prosecutors are keen to see Mr. Low in the dock, and have made efforts to track him down. Both Singapore and Malaysia have issued Interpol red notices for him, which in theory compel other countries to detain Mr. Low, but in practice does not seem to have curtailed his international travel. He’s also subject to a U.S. arrest warrant.
After Malaysian voters turfed out Mr. Najib in 2018 and the new government started cracking down on the 1MDB conspirators, Mr. Low was reported to have travelled to China, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. Al Jazeera obtained a recording of a phone call in late 2018 between Mr. Low and Malaysian authorities, in which he tried to strike a deal to repatriate some of the stolen funds in return for charges being dropped against him. On the call, Mr. Low indicated he was moving between Hong Kong, Macau and Dubai.
As prosecutions continued in Malaysia and the U.S., implicating several officials in the Middle East, Mr. Low’s travel seems to have been somewhat curtailed. Since 2020, there have been no reports of him outside China, where he is believed to have a degree of government protection.
“From early on, it was pretty clear he was being protected by the Chinese,” said David Smith, a former senior FBI special agent who investigated Mr. Low.
Several key 1MDB deals were linked to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and Mr. Smith said that beyond whatever official connections Mr. Low may have, Beijing is also unlikely to want any revelations to emerge about how Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature project was entwined with the world’s largest kleptocracy case.
James Chin, an expert on Malaysian politics at the University of Tasmania, said China is “a good place for him to hide out.”
“China seldom hands criminals over to any other jurisdiction,” Prof. Chin said. “If you’ve got political protection, you can almost get away with anything.”
Macau has denied harbouring Mr. Low.
In a statement issued after reports he was in the Chinese territory surfaced recently, the Macau security bureau said it had told Malaysian authorities in 2020 “the said individual was not in Macau,” and the “situation remains unchanged.”
But in May this year, another 1MDB fugitive, Kee Kok Thiam, suddenly arrived back in Malaysia, after apparently being deported from Macau for overstaying his visa. Mr. Kee – who has since died as a result of a sudden massive stroke, according to his lawyers – reportedly told investigators he met with Jho Low in the administrative region.
Since then, former 1MDB official Jasmine Loo, another alleged conspirator, has also returned to Malaysia. Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said his government was working to bring Mr. Low to justice as well, adding this “involves many countries, it involves intelligence services, Interpol et cetera.”
But while Malaysian prosecutors may wish to get their hands on Mr. Low, Prof. Chin was skeptical whether Mr. Anwar’s administration actually shared this desire.
“I’m not so sure they’re keen for him to come back,” he said. “The sort of things he could reveal would be embarrassing for both the previous government and the present one.”
This could involve implicating officials and lawmakers who have so far avoided prosecution, something Mr. Najib has himself complained about.
“Just because you take action against the man at the top, does it mean that everybody else is absolved?” Mr. Najib says in the documentary, Man On The Run, which covers the 1MDB scandal. “Up to now no action has been taken against … people who are equally if not worse in their culpability.”
Prof. Chin said that “for many reasons, many people would prefer Jho Low to disappear completely.”