Zahid’s trial: Blank cheques over RM1.3m given to mystery moneychanger in exchange for cash, witnesses say

Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (centre) is pictured at the Kuala Lumpur High Court June 16, 2020. — Picture by Miera Zulyana
Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (centre) is pictured at the Kuala Lumpur High Court June 16, 2020. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

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KUALA LUMPUR, June 16 — Signed cheques that combined totalled over RM1.3 million were given to a moneychanger with the name of the recipient left blank, several prosecution witnesses testified today in the money-laundering trial of former deputy prime minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

The witnesses named the moneychanger as one “Omar Ali”, whose name resembles an individual named in Zahid’s money-laundering charges as purportedly having helped him to launder more than RM6 million in illegal funds by passing them to law firm Lewis & Co for fixed deposits.

Here are the details about “Omar Ali” the moneychanger that emerged in Zahid’s trial today.

The blank cheque issuers, the amount, and their reasons

1.            K. Rajan Gunaretnam — RM102,300 cheque for an alleged watch deal

Rajan, 64, who testified as the 58th prosecution witness confirmed that he had known Omar Ali for the last 22 years as a friend.

“Omar Ali is my friend, now recently, sometimes I need money to buy things, I borrow some money from him,” Rajan told deputy public prosecutor Harris Ong Mohd Jeffery Ong today.

Rajan said he started borrowing money from Omar Ali a few years ago, and that he usually borrowed once or twice a month from the same person to be used as capital for business and trading activities.

Rajan confirmed that he had personally issued a Maybank cheque dated June 23, 2016 for the sum of RM102,300, adding that he had delivered the cheque around June 20, 2016 to Omar Ali at the latter’s shop in the KL Plaza mall, now known as Fahrenheit 88.

“When I gave the cheque to Omar Ali, he instructed me to leave the name blank, so I left the name blank,” he said of the name of the recipient for the RM102,300 cheque.

Shown the cheque where the recipient’s name was now written as Lewis & Co, Rajan said he did not know who Lewis & Co is or who added the name. He emphasised that the name was not his handwriting.

In explaining his reason, Rajan said he borrowed RM100,000 from Omar Ali to “do a deal to buy a watch and sell a watch”, and that the cheque was a repayment of the loan after the watch was sold.

“Each time when I buy and sell something, we share the profit, so I gave him RM2,300 extra,” he said of this particular transaction, noting that this was after he had sold to a friend a Corum brand watch of a model that he could not recall now.

Rajan said he paid by cheque as the amount of RM102,300 was too huge. He said it was done on Omar Ali’s instructions, adding that he would always use cheques to repay loans given by Omar Ali. As far as he remembered, the RM102,300 cheque was the only one he had issued to Omar Ali in 2016.

Questioned further, Rajan said he had “never seen” and did not know about Lewis & Co, and had “no dealings” with the entity, further confirming that he only knows Zahid as being a minister but had not had any dealings with Zahid.

Rajan also said he did not have any suspicion when asked to deliver a blank cheque as Omar Ali had always asked him to do so for their transactions and he did not bother to know the recipient’s identity as he took it on “trust”.

Cross-examined by Zahid’s lawyer Hamidi Mohd Noh, Rajan agreed he had borrowed from Omar Ali whenever he was short of money as the latter was a person with means, and reiterated that it was his standard practice to issue “blank cheques” to repay money owed to Omar Ali whom he trusted.

While Hamidi had suggested that Omar Ali could have used the RM102,300 cheque as a donation to Yayasan Akalbudi or suggested that Lewis & Co is a law firm that acts as a trustee, Rajan later said he did not know anything about Yayasan Akalbudi and also had no knowledge of Lewis & Co being a law firm or whether it was acting as a trustee for the foundation.

Rajan also identified Omar Ali who was produced in court briefly today, and confirmed the latter is still his friend.

Zahid was also seen waving to Omar Ali.

Witness K.Rajan Gunaretnam is pictured at the Kuala Lumpur High Court June 16, 2020. ― Picture by Miera Zulyana
Witness K.Rajan Gunaretnam is pictured at the Kuala Lumpur High Court June 16, 2020. ― Picture by Miera Zulyana

2.            Ong Weng Fatt and Hwa Thong Bags Industries Sdn Bhd — Blank cheques totalling RM250k

The businessman was the 61st prosecution witness in Zahid’s trial. He confirmed that the family-owned company Hwa Thong Bags Industries Sdn Bhd where he is a director had issued a Public Bank cheque dated June 16, 2016 for RM80,000.

In his witness statement, Ong said the cheque was to pay for Hwa Thong’s supplies from a Singapore-based supplier that had asked for payment in cash in ringgit. He explained that the company issued a signed “blank cheque” as instructed by his “old friend” Omar Ali with the name of the cheque’s recipient left blank and only the amount filled in.

Ong explained this was because Hwa Thong  did not have RM80,000 in cash in its savings. He  said he personally handed over the company’s “blank” cheque worth RM80,000 to Omar Ali would then hand over the cash equivalent to the Singapore-based supplier.

“Omar Ali is an old friend of mine who I have known since 2014 when I made foreign exchange transactions with him. When I handed over the cheque in my office, he had not informed me that the cheque would be deposited into the Lewis & Co. Account,” he said in his witness statement, adding that he had only found out that the RM80,000 cheque was paid to Lewis & Co when the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) informed him.

Ong confirmed signing off on a June 24, 2016 cheque issued from his personal current account at Citibank for RM170,000 to obtain cash to exchange ringgit into New Zealand currency for his son who was studying there, but said this was once again a cheque with the recipient’s name left blank.

“When I issued this cheque, I just signed and handed the cheque over to Omar Ali at his premises, Money Changer Marhaba Enterprise Sdn Bhd located in Bukit Bintang,” he said, adding that Omar Ali had on the spot personally written down the name of Lewis & Co as the RM170,000 cheque’s recipient.

Like Rajan, Ong said he did not know who Lewis & Co was and that Omar Ali did not explain what the entity was and emphasised that he did not know why the two cheques handed to Omar Ali were made out to pay Lewis & Co.

Ong affirmed the same person produced before Rajan in court as Omar Ali.

Ong also identified Zahid in court today as a former deputy prime minister, but said he had not had any business dealings with Zahid.

Ong said there was nothing “illegal” in his transactions where he gave cheques to Omar Ali in exchange for cash and foreign currency, but said he did not know what happened to the money after Omar Ali took them or whether the latter had done anything illegal using the cheques.

“I pay the money, whatever he do [sic], is it illegal or not I really don’t know, I passed the cheque to Ali and then what he did, I do not know what is happening. Illegally or not, I do not know,” he told deputy public prosecutor Harris.

Earlier today, 54th prosecution witness and Public Bank Jalan Hang Lekir branch assistant manager Lisa Ng Tze Lan had confirmed Hwa Thong Bags Industries’ RM80,000 cheque to Lewis & Co’s Clients’ Account, while the 56th prosecution witness and Citibank’s Menara Citibank branch operation and service manager Wong Lee Chin had confirmed Ong’s RM170,000 cheque to Lewis & Co’s Clients’ Account.

3.            Cergas Murni Sdn Bhd — Blank cheques-for-cash exchange totalling RM1.011m

Khatijah [email protected] who is a director or the construction company was the 60th prosecution witness today and testified that Cergas Murni first issued a Maybank cheque dated March 29, 2016 for RM447,773.42 to be given to an individual known as Omar Ali as a “middleman” to solve issues related to the project to build the third Klang bridge in Selangor during 2014-2017.

She said Omar Ali was proposed by her business partners as a person who could solve the problem, but said she did not know him personally and had never met him.

In her witness statement, she said Cergas Murni issued the signed “blank” cheque on Omar Ali’s instructions to be exchanged into cash needed by the company at his money changer outlet.

Khatijah also confirmed two subsequent Cergas Murni cheques dated April 4, 2016 for RM259,047.04 and dated April 6, 2016 dated RM304,699.54 that were handed over by the company to Omar Ali, further confirming that all three cheques had the recipient’s name left blank as Omar Ali wished.

With the three cheques eventually paid out to Lewis & Co as the written recipient, Khatijah confirmed that she did not know this entity was or why the funds totalling RM1,011,520 were paid to Lewis & Co, further confirming that both she and Cergas Murni did not have any dealings with this entity.

Khatijah confirmed that Cergas Murni received exactly the same amount in cash for the three cheques it had given to Omar Ali, saying that the company’s financial difficulties back in 2016 were resolved with Omar Ali’s aid after the issuing of the cheques.

Both Rajan and Khatijah’s company Cergas Murni were yesterday identified — from court testimony of 10 bankers from five banks — as part of the 10 sources of 41 transactions transferring a combined total of more than RM25.9 million to Lewis & Co’s clients’ account from 2016 to 2018. Some of the RM25.9 million funds were specified by those who had transferred them as legal fees.

Previously on March 6, the 42nd prosecution witness and retiree T. Rajan confirmed issuing five cheques totalling RM366,000 with the recipient’s name left blank to give to a money changer when seeking to convert Malaysian ringgit into Australian dollars, also verifying that he had handed the cheques over to a person only identified as “Omar”. The cheques were later paid out to Lewis & Co, an entity which Rajan said he did not know.

In this trial, Zahid is facing 47 charges, namely 12 counts of criminal breach of trust in relation to Yayasan Akalbudi’s funds, 27 counts of money-laundering, and eight counts of bribery charges.

In one of the money-laundering charges that Zahid is facing, he was accused of having committed a money-laundering offence by allegedly instructing Omar Ali Abdullah to allegedly launder over RM6.885 million of illegal funds into 30 cheques that were then passed to Lewis & Co for the purpose of buying fixed deposits in Maybank.

Earlier today, CIMB Starhill Gallery branch manager Yong Jyi Kae as the 55th prosecution witness confirmed a total of RM783,444.20 worth of cheques all dated June 24, 2016 being made out to Lewis & Co’s Clients’ Account, namely from the CIMB accounts of Mohyiddin Al Halabi (RM127,700), Syarikat Al-Halabi Lounge Sdn Bhd (RM233,444.20, RM200,000) and Tarbush Al Halabi Holdings Sdn Bhd (RM222,300).

The trial before High Court judge Collin Lawrence Sequerah resumes tomorrow.

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