KUALA LUMPUR: The Malaysian government can sell Equanimity in a few months.
Despite the legal dispute over the seizure of the superyacht, the sale is permitted under admiralty law, the body of law that covers ships and the sea.
Attorney General Tommy Thomas said should someone claim ownership of the boat after the sale, the person could sue for the money paid by the buyer.
Thomas added that the government had started legal proceedings to sell the superyacht and that there was a period when the vessel could be sold in a transparent way.
“Obviously, Malaysia has seen the ship and no sovereign country would want to have a yacht this luxurious,” he said during a session at the International Malaysia Law Conference here yesterday.
He added that the proceeds from the sale would be kept in an interest-earning trust account.
If ownership of Equanimity were to be contested in court, the winner of the civil suit would get the money – not the ship.
The plaintiffs in the suit initiated by the Attorney General’s Chambers are the government and several 1Malaysia Development Bhd-linked companies, which assert they are the true and beneficial owners of Equanimity.
“We, the plaintiffs, assert that the yacht is in constructive trust to us, because our monies were used.
“Of course, if and when there’s a contest by Jho Low or anyone else, they will have to assert that it’s theirs,” he said, referring to fugitive businessman Low Taek Jho, who is linked to the controversial vessel.
Thomas added that the critical substantive issue for the Kuala Lumpur High Court admiralty judge presiding over the matter was having to weigh any contest that the respondents might raise, before he could determine ownership.
Asked why he chose to go with admiralty law, he said it was due to the fact that most of the world’s maritime laws were based on British law, and they were therefore recognised in most countries.
He cited Hong Kong as an example, saying a person in that country could hire a shipping lawyer there for advice on how to deal with such an issue.
Though Low is reportedly on the move, he had lived in Hong Kong for at least five years when he was first accused of playing a role in the 1MDB scandal.
A luxury yacht broker who wanted to remain anonymous said there would be no buyer for the superyacht if its ownership was still in dispute.
“Legally, if it is not clear title, no one wants to buy. Would you buy stolen goods?” asked the broker.
However, this problem may not arise at all.
Thomas said admiralty law allowed the court to issue a “good title” to Equanimity, which matters because no buyer would part with hundreds of millions without such an assurance.
A good title is defined as ownership of real property that is totally free of claims against it and therefore can be sold, transferred or put up as security.
“As far as Jho Low is concerned, this is an open and transparent system.
“He should appoint a shipping lawyer to set aside the arrest warrant on the boat and the court process,” said Thomas.
He said such a high-profile case would put the country’s admiralty system on trial.
Therefore, it needs to make sure that it came to the right decision so that the world can see that the Malaysian shipping law had set a high benchmark, he added.
Last Saturday, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said the superyacht would be sold as soon as possible to the highest bidder to recover “stolen money”.
He said the US Department of Justice had assured Malaysia that the superyacht belonged to Low, who allegedly bought it using 1MDB funds.
Dr Mahathir said the ship would not be auctioned but the government would instead accept bids for it.
The goal is to dispose of the ship as quickly as possible as the maintenance alone costs RM2mil a month.