Hidden hands, spin and the truth: Get your 24-page 1MDB special here

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(May 28): On the morning of July 24, 2015, The Straits Times (ST) of Singapore splashed on its print and online editions, what was a world scoop — an interview with Swiss citizen Xavier Andre Justo inside a Bangkok jail.

It was headlined "I was offered $2.7m for stolen data: Ex-PetroSaudi employee Xavier Andre Justo on the 1MDB saga". 

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The report said that the group to which Justo handed documents related to 1MDB’s transactions with PetroSaudi told him they intended to “modify the documents” and use them to “bring down the Malaysian government” of Prime Minister Najib Razak.

The ST story was picked up by the international media. Newspapers and TV stations in Malaysia, where the government had just clamped down on an investigation into 1MDB, happily reproduced the ST report to support Najib’s narrative.

The group that Justo referred to was principally Sarawak Report editor Clare ­Rewcastle Brown, The Edge Media Group chairman Tong Kooi Ong and me.

Although the ST article named only Rewcastle, anyone who was clued in to what was happening in the days leading up to July 24 would have known The Edge in Malaysia was accused of being involved in a plot to bring down Najib by publishing a series of allegedly fake articles on 1MDB that were based on documents received from Justo.

The part about us not paying him the money that was promised is correct.

But the narrative written in the ST article that we had told Justo of our intentions was the same one that the Najib regime was using at that time against us in Kuala Lumpur — that The Edge falsified documents about 1MDB to bring his government down.

After ST published the July 24 article, I immediately responded by admitting we did not pay Justo, but denied we were involved in any attempt to bring down Najib by publishing fake news about 1MDB; nor did we tell Justo we had such an intention.I said we were only out to get to the bottom of 1MDB’s financial woes and we had found from what Justo had shown us that a scam had taken place.

I had also asked about the “hidden hand” behind the ST story and the interview with Justo. I said it was remarkable that while Malaysian police were not allowed (at the time) to see Justo, ST’s Bangkok-based reporter Nirmal Ghosh had access to him in a high-security prison.

ST’s foreign news editor Audrey Quek issued a statement to deny that any hidden hands were involved. A top Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) executive sent me a WhatsApp message to rebut my allegation and said the story was an example of “enterprising” news-gathering and that Nirmal had worked on it for weeks.

As a former correspondent of SPH, I did not want to prolong the argument with my former colleagues and bosses, although I was confident I was right.

We had our hands full — Tong and I had to give statements to Malaysian police as we were being investigated for being part of an alleged plot to bring down a democratically elected government. Our two titles in KL —The Edge weekly and The Edge Financial Daily — were suspended, although the courts subsequently reversed the suspension.

I suggested that the ST bosses find out more from Nirmal about the people who arranged the interview with Justo. Whether they ever did so, I don’t know.

Justo was released after being granted a royal pardon last year and had maintained his silence until March this year when he met the press in Switzerland after giving long depositions to the Swiss Attorney-General about 1MDB/PetroSaudi transactions and what had happened to him in Bangkok.

After Najib’s government was ousted in the May 9 elections, Justo was invited to meet Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. I caught up with Justo and, among other things, he narrated to me the interview with ST and the events leading to it.

He said after he was arrested and charged for blackmail, he was kept in a lockup with 50 others, and everyone was virtually sleeping on top of each other. After a week, he was told he had a choice either to cooperate or expect to languish in jail for many years. He was also told he would be out in less than a year if he agreed to make confessions that were prepared for him.

He also had to give an interview to a reporter from the ST. Justo named the hidden hands as PetroSaudi director Patrick Mahony;  and Paul Finnegan, a UK private detective who disguised himself as a Scotland Yard detective.

“They handed to me a list of 50 questions and answers that I was supposed to use for my interview just before I saw him (Nirmal),” Justo says. “Everything I told him was prepared by them (Mahony and Finnegan) and I was also told not to bring up the name Jho Low.”

Why the “hidden hands” decided to use Nirmal and ST for the Justo “confession” to spin a fake narrative is open to speculation.

In April 2016, ST ran three headline stories — “1MDB leak deal: Ex-PetroSaudi exec sues The Edge owner in Singapore court”, “Media tycoon Tong Kooi Ong seeks to strike out Justo’s reply to defence papers” and “KL tycoon fails in bid to strike out reply by ­ex-PetroSaudi exec”.

These articles were related to a suit filed by Justo via a Singapore lawyer, Suresh Damodara, who was taking instructions from Swiss lawyers on behalf of Justo. They were asking for the return of two data storage drives that were passed to us since he was not paid. He also wanted any copies of the data to be destroyed or returned and that we reveal the various parties we had given the data to. (We had given copies of the data to Malaysian investigators and the Commercial Affairs Department of the Singapore police as stolen 1MDB money had passed through Singapore.)

We were puzzled by the suit. Why did Justo not sue us for the money? Instead, he asked for the return of the storage drives and wanted to know who else had the information in the drives.

We suspected that it was not Justo who initiated it, but that it was the PetroSaudi gang who used him, and this was confirmed to me by Justo.

“I didn’t understand the suit. I was just given documents to sign,” he says. “They told me I had to do it if I wanted an early release.”

We filed our defence and said that since Justo “was widely reported to have confessed to have stolen the data from PetroSaudi”, he was not entitled to have them back. We also said that if anyone should have the storage drives, it was PetroSaudi and we even wrote to the company asking it to be a party to the suit. There was no reply from PetroSaudi.

After a few rounds of case management, the suit was finally thrown out on June 20, 2016. ST, for all its interest in the case, did not report that the court had dismissed the suit.

One month later, on July 20, the US Department of Justice said that it was seizing US$1.0 billion worth of assets acquired with money misappropriated and laundered through US banks by high-level 1MDB officials, including a person identified as Malaysian Official 1.

Ho Kay Tat is publisher of The Edge Media Group