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Setback for flush prince of Brunei

A court orders the royal, accused of looting state coffers, to give up prestigious properties.

December 02, 2007|Sean Yoong | Associated Press

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA — He's been called the "Playboy Prince," famous for luxuries big and small -- planes, yachts, cars, even gold-plated toilet-roll holders.

Brunei's disgraced Prince Jefri Bolkiah may have to adopt a more modest lifestyle now. A British court ordered him to surrender ownership of prestigious U.S. hotels and European homes to the Brunei government's investment arm as payback for allegedly helping himself to billions of dollars from state coffers.

The verdict is the latest chapter in one of Asia's most sensational royal scandals, which has shone a spotlight on the opulent life of the oil-rich sultanate's ruling family.

The scandal became public in 2000, when the government accused Jefri, the youngest brother of Brunei's supreme ruler Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, of embezzling nearly $16 billion from state coffers while Jefri was finance minister from 1986 to 1997.

The losses nearly bankrupted the country, located on the north coast of the island of Borneo. They came at a time when revenue was stretched by low oil prices and the Asian economic crisis.

Jefri's shenanigans estranged him from Hassanal, one of the richest men in the world, who lives in a gold-decked 1,788-room palace and whose own lavish lifestyle is legendary.

Jefri reached an out-of-court settlement with the government in 2000, agreeing to repay Brunei's investment arm the money he allegedly used to buy hotels and other expensive assets.

But the Brunei Investment Agency, which used to be headed by Jefri, launched court proceedings in 2004, saying the prince had not transferred ownership of five U.S. and European properties and a trust fund as required by the settlement.

Jefri, 53, left Brunei in 2004 and has mainly lived in London since then.

He has four wives, 17 children and 18 adopted wards, according to Brunei media.

He has denied wrongdoing, saying he had the authority to use state funds.

According to Britain's Privy Council, the final court of appeal for many British territories and former colonies, Jefri said the disputed assets "enable him to continue to fund a suitable lifestyle for himself and his family."

The Privy Council, however, was unmoved. It ruled last month that Jefri must transfer ownership of the New York Palace Hotel, the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, three residences in London and Paris and the trust fund to the Brunei agency.

Jefri contended that he had an oral agreement with Hassanal entitling him to keep those "six very valuable assets," the Privy Council said in a ruling on its website.

"It appears . . . that the Sultan had some sympathy with Prince Jefri's lifestyle concerns," the council said. "But nothing in the documentary records suggests that a firm agreement had been reached or . . . that the Sultan had ever agreed to Prince Jefri retaining the six assets."

A legal expert close to the Brunei Investment Agency said Jefri had not responded to the verdict, but that the agency's lawyers hoped to meet Jefri's representatives in London soon. Discussions about Jefri's finances might be held separately, but Jefri will continue to receive a regular, undisclosed entitlement accorded all Brunei royalty, the expert said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

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