By Sharon Tan & Richard C. Paddock
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The fugitive Malaysian financier Jho Low, a prime suspect in the theft of billions of dollars from the government, was charged Friday with eight counts of laundering money, much of it reportedly used to purchase a $250 million yacht.
The Malaysian police issued arrest warrants for Mr. Low and his father, Low Hock Peng, who was charged with one count of money laundering.
The warrants are a first step in seeking the pair’s extradition. Their whereabouts are unknown but there has been recent speculation in the news media that the younger Mr. Low is in China.
He is accused of playing a key role in the theft of at least $4.5 billion from a government investment fund, 1 Malaysia Development Berhad, that was established and overseen by the former prime minister, Najib Razak.
The scandal over missing government money, including the diversion of $731 million to Mr. Najib’s personal account, outraged many Malaysians and helped secure Mr. Najib’s upset election defeat in May.
Since taking office, the new government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has aggressively pursued a criminal investigation into the missing funds.
Shortly after the election, the police seized $273 million in cash, jewelry, luxury handbags and other valuables during raids on properties controlled by Mr. Najib and his wife, Rosmah.
Mr. Najib has since been charged with seven counts of money laundering, criminal breach of trust and corruption. He has pleaded not guilty. He and his wife are prohibited from leaving the country.
Mr. Low’s megayacht, Equanimity, was seized in Indonesia last month and handed over to the Malaysian government. On Friday, the government won court approval for a quick sale of the ship.
The eight charges against Mr. Jho Low accuse him of laundering $450 million in stolen funds through bank accounts in Singapore, the United States, the Cayman Islands and Switzerland.
Mr. Low’s father was charged with transferring $56.4 million in stolen funds to an account controlled by his son.
Each charge could be punished by as much as five years in prison.
The charges against Mr. Low and his father were first reported by The Edge, a Malaysian media organization. Two of its print publications, the Edge Weekly and the Edge Financial Daily, were suspended for three months in 2015 by Mr. Najib’s government for their coverage of the investment fund scandal.
The Edge reported Friday that most of the money cited in the charges against the Lows was used to purchase the Equanimity.
An Australian public relations firm representing the younger Mr. Low issued a statement saying that he had not violated the law.
“Mr. Low maintains his innocence and is confident he will be vindicated,” said the statement released by Benjamin Haslem, co-CEO of the firm, Wells Haslem Mayhew Strategic Public Affairs.
Mr. Haslem declined to say where the Lows were or to answer questions about the case.
The statement asserted that the criminal charges were an attempt to distract attention from the seizure of the Equanimity and the government’s plan to sell it.
It also sought to cast the case as political, calling Mr. Mahathir’s elected government a “regime” and asserting that the criminal charges amount to “political reprisal.”
Mr. Low, the statement said, “will not submit to any jurisdiction where guilt has been predetermined by politics and self-interest overrules legal process.”