From palace to prison: Sultan of Brunei's brother faces jail over £3bn court order

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Prince Jefri of Brunei, the billionaire playboy whose expensive tastes have become the stuff of legend, is facing the prospect of swapping his life of luxury for a jail cell after failing to turn up for a court hearing.

A judge issued an arrest warrant yesterday for the exiled prince, the youngest brother of the Sultan of Brunei, adding a strong hint that he will be denied bail if found. He is thought to have fled to France or Monaco. "If he is arrested it will take an advocate of great skill to persuade me that he should have bail," said Mr Justice Peter Smith.

A prison cell would be a terrible comedown for a man accustomed to opulence beyond a normal person's wildest dreams, in which even the lavatory brush holders are lined with gold. His London address is St John's Lodge in Regent's Park, one of the capital's most spectacular private homes.

He came to grief in one of Asia's most sensational royal scandals, which became public in 2000 when the Brunei government accused him of siphoning off about £8bn of Brunei's money into his own Amedeo Development Corporation during his 13 years as Finance Minister.

Amedeo went bust at a time when oil prices were low and there was an economic crisis in Asia. Its debts almost bankrupted the country. Prince Jefri reached an out-of-court settlement in 2000 requiring him to hand over £3bn.

He claims he complied with the order, but in 2004 the agency accused him of failing to hand over five properties in the US and Europe and a trust fund that were all included in the order.

Prince Jefri left Brunei, made London his main residence and took his case to the Privy Council, the final court of appeal for many former British colonies.

Last November, the Privy Council ordered him to hand over the New York Palace Hotel, the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, three homes in London and Paris, and the trust fund.

Yesterday should have been the start of a five-day court hearing into whether the prince has breached the court order, but when the court convened, he was absent. His counsel, James Lewis QC, told Mr Justice Smith that the prince had contacted his solicitors from France to say that he was not going to attend. "Tell me where he is, or don't you know?" the judge said. "I don't know where he is. He is abroad, I believe in France," said Mr Lewis. He said he had also given an address in Monaco.

The judge concluded that this was the prince's way of giving himself "two bites of the cherry", by claiming that he had not been able to defend himself if he was convicted. He said: "I know how people choose to work the system, if they want to do it. Game one is always a no-show, and if it goes their way, all well and good, but if it goes badly you want another go. Game three is he sacks all his lawyers and comes up with a new team, blaming the old lawyers for not doing it properly."

Any trial in the prince's absence was likely to be "half-cocked" he said. He ruled the prince in contempt of court, and issued an arrest warrant which can be extended across the EU.

The prince maintains that some of the stories about his lifestyle are exaggerated or untrue. But the world was given an insight seven years ago when some of his possessions were put up for auction in Brunei, raising around £4m. The items included 8,500 slabs of Italian marble, 200 lampposts, a Formula One racing simulator, an aircraft flight simulator, hundreds of gold-plated lavatory brush holders, thousands of expensive items of crockery and utensils, and a white Jacuzzi complete with gold-plated fittings. Other assets, such as a flight simulator for an attack helicopter and two unused fire engines, were held back for a subsequent sale.

According to the Brunei media, Prince Jefri has four wives, 17 children and 18 adopted wards.

An oil-rich dynasty

*Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah, the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam, is the 29th ruler in an unbroken line going back more than 600 years. His 20bn fortune makes him the world's third richest oil sheikh. He rules his tiny country from a palace said to contain 1,788 rooms. For two centuries, his family ruled a large island empire, but wars and the arrival of European conquerors confined them to a corner of Borneo. Oil was discovered in 1929. The family placed itself under British protection in 1847.