Thursday 29 Feb 2024
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This article first appeared in Options, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on February 27, 2023 - March 5, 2023

Xavier Justo has been called an ‘accidental hero’ for the leaks that led to the uncovering of 1MDB’s dirty deals. In Rendezvous with Injustice, he and wife Laura talk about being stuck in the mire.

 

BEHIND the sordid scandal of 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) is a real-life story of people trying to fight potent criminals. Two of them, Xavier and Laura, have put together an account of their own experiences, from when he started working with PetroSaudi International at its inception to his first suspicions of foul play, to where the husband and wife live today.

Rendezvous with Injustice is a story of integrity, they share via email from Valencia, Spain, a place they now call home with their young son. “We wanted to write the book for our Xander, our families and friends, the people of Malaysia, and all those interested in knowing what exactly happened. We started working on it when we settled in Malaysia in 2019 — it was a happy time in our life — but as we had to flee almost overnight, we couldn’t finish it as planned.”

Former Swiss banker Xavier was the whistleblower who leaked to the media details about how billions of ringgit were siphoned off by 1MDB between 2009 and 2011. The sovereign fund set up by former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had in 2009 entered into a joint venture with PetroSaudi, at which Xavier was then director, to promote economic development through global partnerships.

The JV was a fraud: More than US$4 billion was stolen from the 1MDB fund and laundered through major financial institutions in the US, Switzerland, Singapore and Luxembourg. The money was spent on property, diamonds and art, and to support the lavish lifestyle of the alleged mastermind, fugitive businessman Low Taek Jho (Jho Low). More than US$1 billion was reportedly deposited into Najib’s personal account from 2011 to 2013.

Information provided by Xavier — 90GB of data, including 227,000 emails — led to exposés on what the US Department of Justice called the “largest kleptocracy case to date” and investigations into corruption and money laundering. But there were adverse repercussions for him and his family.

In August 2015, four years after leaving PetroSaudi, Xavier was sentenced to three years’ jail by a Bangkok court after Thai police said he admitted to attempting to blackmail his former employer. In December 2016, after 547 days behind bars, he was among 150,000 Thai and foreign inmates granted a royal amnesty by Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

Rendezvous, subtitled How a family survived hell after blowing the whistle on the 1MDB financial scandal, is expected to reveal more dirt on 1MDB.

Finding a fitting title was difficult but they did it on their own. “The word ‘injustice’ resumes our story, that of Malaysia, as well as 1MDB and ‘rendezvous’ makes it a little French so it does represent us,” says this son of Spanish immigrants whose surname means “just” in his mother tongue.

Xavier and Laura wrote alternating chapters of the book: he from memory because he had no agenda or notebooks in prison, and she referring to notes, emails, text messages and recordings from everything she did, following an exact timeline and proof.

“We each wrote our story and then put them together alternatively so it would be interesting for the reader to have a book with one story and the same moments, but lived completely differently by a husband and wife fighting for their lives,” she explains.

Many of the episodes were difficult, even painful to relive, for both of them. Worse than the physical trauma Xavier encountered was the mental torture Laura faced at the hands of PetroSaudi executives Patrick Mahony and Tarek Obaid.

“When Xavier was in prison, Mahony and Tarek sent Paul Finnigan [a British private detective who claimed to be with Scotland Yard] to threaten me. They told me they would throw me in prison and take my son and he would end up in an orphanage if I stopped cooperating with them.”

Laura had to flee Thailand because of their threats. That made them lose the opportunity to properly sell their resort. So, we lost all our money, our projects, some friends and our animals, Xavier continues. “They traumatised us and our families. Xander couldn’t talk to or see his father for 1½ years.”

Freedom was sweet, but not how some people reacted to them in Geneva, Switzerland, where they returned to after his release. “They tended to know only scant details about our case and assumed we were guilty. One potential landlord even told us he feared there might be a bomb in the car park if he let his apartment to us.” Besides, as an ex-prisoner, Xavier was unable to open a bank account.

The country is not really a safe haven for whistleblowers, Laura feels. “Xavier is under investigation for industrial espionage because he leaked data to the press. The incredible thing is, at the same time, he is also a witness for Switzerland in the complaint it has filed against Tarek and Mahony.

“Even if people are always saying we are incredibly strong, with a high level of integrity, we were not able to find a stable job there. This was the main reason we had to leave. But our will is still strong, we have a son and we cannot give up the fight.”

In November 2018, upon learning that Swiss federal prosecutors had opened an investigation against Xavier following a complaint by PetroSaudi about industrial espionage, they decided to pack up and move back to Malaysia. London, an initial option, was out as England’s libel laws are such that “PetroSaudi could have drowned us in litigation proceedings”.

In 2019, they returned to Kuala Lumpur with Xander and their dog Veggie. “The wall of official silence and public suspicion we had experienced in Switzerland contrasted markedly with the recognition we received in KL, where hardly a day passed without someone expressing thanks on behalf of their country,” Xavier writes.

Laura’s personal goal was to take a Le Cordon Bleu culinary course and for her husband to be allowed to start a company. The following March, their plans were dashed by news of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s resignation: Factionalism and his refusal to work with some figures from the Najib regime led him to pull his Bersatu party out of the Pakatan Harapan coalition. With the collapse of the PH government, the Justos, worried about the country’s stability and their safety, decided to leave immediately and discreetly.

Xavier and Laura took the extra precaution of booking separate flights: She would fly with Xander and he, alone. “Covid gave us a reason to wear masks. But this being Malaysia, people still recognised us at the airport. Besides our belongings, we had to leave Veggie behind — again, she would stay with a good local friend.”

Back in Europe, they relooked an earlier idea of putting down roots in Spain. After trips to find accommodation and a school for Xander, they loaded everything they had into a van in August 2020 and set out for their new place. “It was time to start living again.”

Valencia allows them to be anonymous and enjoy tranquil days and simple pleasures, away from watchful eyes and harassment. Veggie, returned to them from Malaysia, “didn’t change our predicament but it brought us happiness and optimism and made us feel whole again as a family”, Laura says.

Asked how much Xander, now eight, knows about 1MDB and whether he has been affected by the shocking turn of events, Xavier says: “Thank God he doesn’t remember as he was too young when it happened. He knows we wrote a book and that his father is a hero. He will read it when the time comes. For now, he is a very happy boy who has a normal life. He loves Spain, school and has a lot of friends, and speaks Spanish on top of French and English. One day, he will understand the whole story and certainly be proud of his parents. We hope we will be able to make him understand that fighting for moral values is a priority in life.”

There is a price to pay for every battle. Was jail the lowest point in Xavier’s life and what kept him going during those dark cramped days?

“Nobody can comprehend what a Thai prison is — there is no morality or legality. Nothing is given to prisoners, no soap, no toothbrush. You have to pay to get a decent meal and for clean water.

“What kept me and my fighting spirit alive was knowing that Laura was there for me, that I had a son who needed his father, and family and friends who counted on me. I could not fight the manipulation or the malicious lies because they had me locked up. Laura had the courage to do it for the love of our family and because she always knew I was innocent.”

Xavier was nominated for 2020 Whistleblower of the Year by English law firm Constantine Cannon but did not win. Recognition is “a sign that our struggle was still in the spotlight”, even though they sometimes feel jabs of guilt and doubt about the validity of decisions they made.

Being an unwitting protagonist in an explosive saga has led to a very real problem: He and Laura have difficulty finding work despite their Swiss banking background. Why?

“The answer is simple: We have been told consistently that we are too well known and too much of a reputational risk. Given that we have been applying for jobs in the financial sector — where a fresh scandal is exposed every other month — this is almost laughable.”

Wider recognition for this couple may come hard on the heels of a contract they have signed with a producer who has followed their story since the beginning and with whom they have built a relationship of trust.

They hope there will be a film or TV series based on Rendezvous, which “tells the story of the injustice we have suffered as a result of daring to blow the whistle on crimes by men in white whose sense of entitlement led them to operate beyond the bounds of morality and decency”.

“Everybody may know by now the 1MDB scam and read about it, but no one knows or has read about it through someone who lived it directly. All the articles and books on 1MDB were about the financial and political aspects. Ours is about the human side, the consequences of what the criminals do to try and clear their names. It’s a financial and human story that could have happened to anyone. It’s about the unfairness of the system of justice in our world.

“Why now? Maybe because our lives have been upside down all these years, and it was not possible to write it before. Also, it will put pressure on the different authorities to not let this crime go unpunished!”

For Xavier personally, the whole episode reveals how people react in an extreme environment. “We have discovered that lawyers out for money will forget ethics and work to undermine innocent people. We have found journalists can also be corrupt and publish the opposite of the truth, damaging the image of good people forever.”

The Justos have lost a few people whom they believed were friends because “the criminals involved were paying for their partying habits”. But these are a minority.

“The biggest and brightest point is people will, in a vast majority of the cases, stick to what is just and true. We had and have our family, friends and people familiar with the case close to us. They have been an incredible support. We can include our lawyers, some journalists and others who, no matter what, will never compromise with criminals.”

Was the book motivated by a desire for justice or vindication, or just a chance to tell their own story — in which case, will this lead to a fresh path for them? “It’s a desire to have justice done and be able to move on. It’s also a chance to tell our true side of the story after not being able to speak for so long,” Xavier says

“Writing about your worst moments in life, your vulnerability, your pain was extremely difficult as it brought back memories of every worst moment we had to endure. It was also difficult reading each other’s parts. But there is no other way to tell our story. That’s why, we hope people will enjoy how authentic it is.”

He is proud of being a whistleblower and what he has done to expose a crime and help a country that is not his. But his actions were not driven by a desire for recognition. “Of course, some people have tried to discredit me and I’ve even been a target of a disinformation campaign. But that is what criminals do — they shoot the messenger! By repeating lies, they hope these will be transformed into truth!”

The Edge and Sarawak Report both obtained information on PetroSaudi’s shenanigans from Xavier. The Edge Media Group chairman Tan Sri Tong Kooi Ong gifted Xavier US$2 million on behalf of the people of Malaysia for the suffering he and his family went through to help expose the 1MDB scam. So, how did people react to that?

“We had two kinds of reactions: the first being people who were genuinely happy for us and said we deserved the money for all our suffering and our fight. These are the people we listened to! On the other side, we had some suspicion or accusation; we really did not pay attention to them. We were happy and we knew the truth: The money was a gift for all that we did for our beloved Malaysia and nothing else. And having people close to the PetroSaudi team accusing us topped the irony!

“We almost invested all this money in a project that was supposed to be done in Malaysia as we really thought it was the right thing to do. When people read the book they will understand that unfortunately, things don’t always go according to plan.”

Where does Xavier think Jho Low is hiding and would he say the law is closing in on him? Does he hope Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim will step up efforts to locate and arrest this “mastermind”?

“We don’t know for sure where Jho Low is but we, like almost everybody, presume he is in China. Having read that he did important deals with China and a member of the Xi family, I’m not convinced he will leave China in any way.

I think there are a lot of people who prefer that he doesn’t speak or reveal his business secrets.

“Having said that, I really hope Anwar Ibrahim could be the one to bring him back to Malaysia. But again, I do think this will not be thanks to the long arm of the law but a political decision.”

 

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