KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - A Malaysian court on Friday granted an application by the government to sell a $250 million (£194.5 million) luxury yacht allegedly bought with money stolen from scandal-tainted state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
The Cayman Islands-flagged Equanimity was handed over to Malaysia by Indonesian authorities earlier this month after it was impounded in Bali.
The 300-ft (91-m) yacht was allegedly bought by fugitive Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho, or Jho Low, with funds diverted from 1MDB, according to lawsuits filed by the U.S. Department of Justice as part of a kleptocracy investigation that traced billions of dollars taken from the fund.
Malaysian police filed criminal charges against Low on Friday although his whereabouts are still unknown.
Low is regarded as having been close to former prime minister Najib Razak, who last month was charged for money laundering and abuse of power in connection with funds transferred from a former unit of 1MDB.
The Admiralty Court in Kuala Lumpur gave the government clearance to sell the Equanimity after a one-and-a-half hour hearing, without the presence of representatives from the yacht's owner.
"It doesn't affect the case, if they're interested, they should come before this court," said Ong Chee Kwan, one of the lawyers representing the Malaysian government and 1MDB.
"We have not been approached by anybody, no lawyers have entered an appearance in court."
Before the hearing, Equanimity (Cayman) Ltd, which claims ownership of the yacht, said in a statement that it had not received any "legally valid notice" of the application for the sale or of the court hearing.
"To move for a sale in Malaysia immediately would be a remarkable violation of due process and international legal comity, and would call into question the actual ownership of the yacht for a potential buyer," the company said in the statement.
A spokesman for Low issued a statement through attorneys describing the planned sale of the yacht as further proof that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had no interest in following a fair and just legal process.
"This illegal and costly act once again shows Mahathir’s interests are purely political and that he has no respect for the rule of law," the statement said.
Once valuers have appraised the yacht, the government will put it up for sale by public tender, and the proceeds would be held by the court until it is determined who should receive the money, the government's lawyers said.
The Equanimity has an interior clad in marble and gold leaf, a spa and sauna, a 20-metre (66-ft) swimming pool, a movie theatre, a lift and a helipad, according to yachtcharterfleet.com, a website for luxury charters.
"Because the costs of maintaining it is so high, the longer it is maintained at this cost the more the value of the vessel is diminished, so we want to get it sold as soon as possible," Ong said.
(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)