June 27, 2008

Brunei prince fights to keep Nassim mansion

Worth at least $120m, it was used by the prince up to year 2000

By K. C. Vijayan, Law Correspondent

HOUSE OF CONTENTION: The Brunei Investment Agency (BIA) is seeking court order here to compel the prince (2nd image) to hand over the title to this Nassim Road mansion. The Registrar of Titles here requires a Singapore court order for the BIA to be registered as the legal owner of the mansion. -- ST PHOTO: LIM WUI LIANG

THE fight between Brunei's national investment firm and the sultan's brother, Prince Jefri Bolkiah, has reached Singapore's courts.

The prize in this legal battle: the prince's now-unoccupied Nassim Road mansion, worth at least $120 million and believed to have housed valuable artworks and other assets.

The prince, the younger brother of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, is already mired in tussles with the Brunei Investment Agency (BIA) over his assets elsewhere, including those in London and New York.

The BIA, which the sultan oversees, is the main agency holding and managing the Brunei government's General Reserve Fund and its external assets.

In the fight for the Nassim Road property, the BIA is represented here by Senior Counsel Vinodh Coomaraswamy.

According to court documents filed in the Supreme Court, the BIA is seeking a court order to compel the 53-year-old prince to hand over the title to the premises.

The Registrar of Titles here requires a Singapore court order for the BIA to be registered as the legal owner of the mansion.

Prince Jefri, defended here by lawyer George Pereira, is contesting the application.

A hearing has been fixed for October.

The plush Nassim Road premises, named Arwaa mansion, were understood to have been used by Prince Jefri up to the year 2000.

The house, having been developed as a single structure from two back-to-back properties with different addresses, has entrances on two roads.

Although unoccupied, it is guarded round the clock by private security staff; cleaners are also there regularly.

In a bid to keep it in his possession, Prince Jefri is expected to argue, among other things, that Arwaa mansion was excluded, and therefore separate, from matters heard before the Brunei courts as part of the enforcement proceedings started there against him in 2004.

The prince, who left Brunei that year and now lives in France, is expected to ask the courts here to return Arwaa mansion to him.

His assets in London are still the subject of court enforcement.

Over in New York, a court ordered in March that he hand over ownership of the plush New York Palace hotel in Manhattan to the Brunei government.

It has been reported, however, that the court has barred its sale because the prince is disputing the order for a chance at ownership.

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The legal battle

BILLIONS of dollars are alleged to have gone missing while Prince Jefri Bolkiah was Brunei's finance minister.

He signed an agreement out-of-court with Brunei's government in May 2000 to hand over several of his properties and valuables from around the world, but apparently failed to comply fully with the terms.

Legal action began against him in Brunei in 2004, and ended last year at London's Privy Council, the oil-rich kingdom's highest court of appeal, which ruled that he had to comply with the deal.

Earlier this month, the London court issued an arrest warrant against him for not showing up to answer charges that he had violated a court order to hand over &pound3 billion (S$8 billion) to the Brunei government.