Prosecution: Zahid orchestrated money-laundering scheme, used moneychanger to make bags of cash ‘disappear’ into cheques for own benefit

Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi arriving at the Kuala Lumpur High Court, October 5, 2021. — Picture by Miera Zulyana
Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi arriving at the Kuala Lumpur High Court, October 5, 2021. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

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KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 5 — Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was the one who allegedly created a scheme to launder illegal funds, and who used the services of a money changer who helped convert millions of ringgit in bags of cash into cheques, the prosecution argued in the High Court today. 

The prosecution said that the “disappearance” of the cash into cheques were then later sent to a law firm to be placed in fixed deposits in the bank, arguing that the complex mixture of funds from various other illegal activities that were channelled into the fixed deposits would then result in Ahmad Zahid being able to tap into the funds.

In this trial, Ahmad Zahid is facing 27 money laundering charges relating to funds allegedly from unlawful activities, including 25 charges involving his alleged instructions to law firm Lewis & Co on 25 separate occasions to put over RM53 million into fixed deposit accounts.

The 26th charge is over Ahmad Zahid’s alleged instructions to buy two bungalows worth RM5.9 million via a cheque involving unlawful funds, while the 27th charge involves his alleged instructions to moneychanger Omar Ali Abdullah to convert RM7.5 million of illegal funds into 35 cheques that were then given to the same law firm to be placed in fixed deposits.

Deputy public prosecutor Harris Ong Mohd Jeffery Ong today suggested that the alleged money laundering activities under all 27 charges are interrelated, and argued that the High Court should look at the flow of these funds in the context of Ahmad Zahid standing to have the most benefit.

“For today’s charges, we are looking for the enjoyment of the illegal proceeds. In the end, who benefits the most? For example, Omar Ali might receive some commission but in the end all the money converted into cheques ended up in Lewis & Co as fixed deposits which the accused will have power to dispose of the fixed deposits.

“We have evidence how the accused demonstrated that he could use fixed deposits by way of purchase of two units of bungalows. It is important to look at how the money-laundering charges interact with each other.

“The way how money is mingled around to be cashed in together, to be applied to buy fixed deposits, it clearly shows the whole scheme is money laundering orchestrated by the accused,” Harris said, referring to Ahmad Zahid as the accused.

Omar Ali Abdullah is pictured at the Kuala Lumpur High Court June 18, 2020. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
Omar Ali Abdullah is pictured at the Kuala Lumpur High Court June 18, 2020. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

Among other things, Harris had spoken about Omar Ali’s role in Ahmad Zahid’s alleged money-laundering scheme, describing Omar Ali — whose wife is from the same hometown as Ahmad Zahid — as being a man on a mission to help convert the cash into cheques.

Harris urged the High Court to consider the whole chain of events starting from Ahmad Zahid’s alleged instructions to Omar Ali, the method in which cash was delivered to Omar Ali and the latter’s subsequent conversion of RM7.5 million cash into cheques, and Ahmad Zahid’s acceptance of all the “suspicious cheques” from Omar Ali and how it ended up in the law firm Lewis & Co.

Omar Ali, who was the 81th prosecution witness in this trial, had previously testified that multiple unknown individuals that Ahmad Zahid had told him were from Yayasan Al Bukhary had handed him cash at a shopping mall and hotel lobbies, with the first involving a piece of luggage which he recalled had cash possibly in the range of RM1.5 million.

“I further submit that the evidence of Omar Ali’s action in converting the cash should be weighed and considered not in isolation, but with careful care in the light of money laundering schemes operated by the accused.

“Omar Ali is on the mission. He needs to think fast, act smooth, make sure all the cash money disappears and finally deliver the ‘proceeds’ to the accused according to the plan,” Harris said.

As part of efforts to convert the cash into cheques, Omar Ali had banked in some of the cash into his wife’s company Ekares Sdn Bhd and used blank company cheques signed by his wife, before using 16 of these cheques to then channel more than RM4.5 million to Lewis & Co over three days in 2016.  

“It is humbly submitted that all those activities above would constitute a scheme of money laundering orchestrated by the accused with Omar Ali being the agent,” Harris said when describing Omar Ali’s active involvement in the cash-to-cheques conversion using his wife’s company.

“The source of cash money received by Omar Ali is in doubt. This is because in the course of investigation Yayasan Albukhary had never donated in a way testified by Omar Ali,” Harris added. (Ahmad Zahid’s lawyers had previously disputed the claim that Yayasan Albukhary never donated the funds.)

At this point, High Court judge Datuk Collin Lawrence Sequerah asked the prosecution to clarify what evidence it had that the cash in luggage passed by unknown men to Omar Ali were proceeds from unlawful activities, asking for example if it is simply due to the unknown individuals passing the money or if the prosecution was merely relying on inference from the circumstances where the donor has no relationship to Lewis & Co.

The judge noted that “suspicious or doubtful” circumstances alone cannot be a substitute to or be the basis for evidence of the money being from unlawful activities, and asked the prosecution to clarify as proceeds from unlawful activities was a key element that needed to be proved in the money laundering charges against Ahmad Zahid.

Among other things, Harris acknowledged that the circumstances that a big sum totalling RM7.5 million were delivered by unknown persons to Omar Ali does not itself show that the money is from illegal sources, but argued that evidence shows that these cash funds had together with other funds alleged to be from bribes and criminal breach of trust were then put into the “same bowl” via Lewis & Co to then buy fixed deposits as part of Ahmad Zahid’s alleged money laundering scheme.

“But overall, the scheme, the role played by Lewis & Co, how they managed the accounts, how they managed to receive the cheques, whether from CBT, corruption charge or Ekares or unknown individuals who delivered cash to Omar Ali, it all ends up in client account of Lewis & Co,” he said.

Ahmad Zahid’s lawyers have been arguing that Lewis & Co is a trustee that held money on trust for Yayasan Akalbudi, a charitable foundation aimed at eradicating poverty and where Ahmad Zahid is a trustee.

Among other things, Harris had said the prosecution did not need to prove every single cheque that had entered into Lewis & Co’s client account were proceeds from unlawful activities, due to the “complexity” of money laundering cases.

Harris said Ahmad Zahid’s conduct in receiving the donations where he failed to take reasonable steps to check whether the cash delivered to Omar Ali were from illegal sources should be weighed together with Omar Ali’s actions and the alleged instructions he received.

Harris said Omar Ali’s handling of the cash-to-cheques conversion could alternatively be seen as being unlawful activities, such as the offence of lending money without a licence (when he gave cash as a loan in return for a cheque), or the money-laundering offence of structuring transactions to evade reporting requirement when using his wife’s company Ekares, or the money-laundering offence of failing to take reasonable steps to determine if the cash received were from illegal sources.

Harris today also argued that there was integration carried out of the alleged illegal funds — where unlawful funds are for example invested and then being able to be returned from legitimate sources — in this case such as through the purchase of two bungalows and a later-aborted share purchase deal.

He cited as example a complex series of transactions, where Yayasan Akalbudi’s funds were sent to Lewis & Co’s client account via a RM17.9 million cheque, and that this then resulted in a RM9.3 million fixed deposit as well as a separate RM8.6 million cheque used for a share purchase deal between Ahmad Zahid’s daughter and Ri-Yaz Assets Sdn Bhd.

Harris then referred to Ri-Yaz’s return of RM254,879.10 in a cheque as a surplus amount, but said this was not returned to Yayasan Akalbudi but became part of another fixed deposit sum of RM5.4 million. 

He argued that the complex series of conversions and transactions where funds from various sources were combined for the RM5.4 million fixed deposits — which is part of one of Ahmad Zahid’s money laundering charges — was solely intended “to obscure the true source of criminal proceeds”.

Referring to use of the complex mechanism for the alleged hiding of the truth and the origin of the cheques involved in the RM5.4 million fixed deposits, Harris later also suggested: “Proceeds from multiple unlawful activities — criminal breach of trust, corruption and money-laundering — are assorted in a honey pot orchestrated by the accused.”

Harris also noted that the failure of the share purchase deal then resulted in Ri-Yaz issuing a RM8.3 million cheque to return the funds, with Ahmad Zahid’s alleged instructions to Lewis & Co to deposit this sum into the law firm’s client account and the later use of the funds for a new fixed deposit being part of another of the money-laundering charges against him.

Harris argued that these transactions showed how “illegal money” had been changing hands, and highlighted Lewis & Co’s alleged crucial role in the money laundering scheme through Ahmad Zahid’s alleged manipulation of the law firm through its partner for the alleged scheme.

In this trial, Ahmad Zahid ― who is a former deputy prime minister and currently the Umno president ― is facing 47 charges, namely 12 counts of criminal breach of trust in relation to charitable foundation Yayasan Akalbudi’s funds, 27 counts of money-laundering, and eight counts of bribery charges.

The trial resumes tomorrow morning, with the prosecution expected to present further arguments on why Ahmad Zahid should not be released from the money-laundering charges and why he should be called to enter his defence on these charges.

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