Submarine Furor Returns to Malaysia

Central figure in bribe case seeks to paint company at center of the scandal as legitimate

A central figure in the massive bribery case of Malaysian officials for the purchase of submarines from a subsidiary of the French defense contractor DCN has caused a furor in Malaysia with an exclusive interview with the Kuala Lumpur-based political party broadsheet New Straits Times.

In the interview, Jasbir Singh Chahl told the newspaper, which is owned by the United Malays National Organization, the country's biggest political party, that the murdered Mongolian party girl and translator Altantuya Shaariibuu had never acted as a translator in the affair. He also said Perimekar Sdn Bhd., then a wholly owned subsidiary of a company owned by one of then-Defense Minister Najib Tun Razak's best friends, actually had done legitimate work to earn a €114.96 "commission" that has been characterized as a bribe by French officials.

In the wake of Chahl's remarks, Home Minister Zahid Hamidi has threatened the leaders of Suaram, the human rights NGO that took allegations of the affair to French authorities, with sedition. The Registrar of Societies has also threatened to take away Suaram's certification as an NGO.

No one outside of the New Straits Times, the UMNO mouthpiece, has been allowed to interview Jasbir Singh Chahl. If neutral journalists had been allowed, they could have brought up the 135 French documents that question Perimekar's role in the purchase, and prove that Altantuya had visited Paris in the company of Perimekar's boss, Abdul Razak Baginda. They could also have brought up a mysterious payment of €36 million from a DCN offshoot to Terasasi (Hong Kong) Ltd, a mysterious company whose only directors are Razak Baginda and his father.

Najib, Malaysia's Prime Minister since 2009, has just come through a bruising political campaign in which corruption allegations, including those surrounding the submarine purchase, played a major role. For the first time since Malaysia became a nation, the Barisan Nasional, the ruling national coalition, came out on the short end of the popular vote, winning 47.38 percent of the popular vote against 50.87 percent for the opposition headed by Anwar Ibrahim. The Barisan, however, managed to win 140 of the 222 seats in parliament through gerrymandering.

The documents made available to Asia Sentinel from the French prosecutor's office in Paris, make it clear both that DCN officials characterized Perimekar as "nothing more than a travel agency" allegedly designed to enrich UMNO officials, and also make it clear that Altantuya had accompanied Abdul Razak Baginda, the beneficial owner at that point of Perimekar, on a visit to DCN offices in 2005, before she was murdered by two of Najib's bodyguards.

The documents, published in French, remain uploaded on the Asia Sentinel website and can be viewed here (French Prosecutor's documents).

It has thus long been clear that Chahl is dissembling on both counts. Chahl's credibility has been damaged further by the fact that he was ousted from Perimekar early on in the negotiations himself. In several memos found during the DCN investigation, Chahl demanded a full fourth of Perimekar's total €114.96 million as a finder's fee. He was subpoenaed as a witness in the case, but after first indicating to French lawyers that he would cooperate, he stopped talking. The case with Razak Baginda has been settled out of court, according to Cynthia Gabriel of Suaram.

According to the French prosecutor's documents, Perimekar was described as "never more than a travel agency…The price is inflated and their support function is very vague…Yes, that company created unfounded wealth for its shareholders," according to one of the documents. In another, the DCN officials said that "In Malaysia, other than individuals, the ruling party [UMNO] is the largest beneficiary [rather than Perimekar, the company to which the commission was directed]. Consultants [agents or companies] are often used as a political network to facilitate such transfers and receive commissions for their principals."

The payment appears to have been in violation of the OECD Convention on Bribery, which France ratified on June 30, 2000. On Sep. 29, 2000, according to document D00015, DCNI, a DCN subsidiary, "took corrective actions" after France joined the bribery convention.

Contracts concluded after that date were to be routed to Eurolux and Gifen, companies held by Jean-Marie Boivin, DCN's former finance chief, and headquartered in Luxembourg and Malta respectively. Boivin is being investigated for having played a central role in the "corrective actions," with what were described as "outlandish commissions" traveling through the welter of companies that he established in tax havens around the world.

"A separate agreement sets other compensation consisting of a fixed amount independent of the actual price of the main contract," one document reads in reference to the payment to Perimekar. "This has been made to be consistent with [DCN's] internal rules and [its subsidiary] Thales and those of the OECD. The beneficiaries of these funds are not difficult to imagine: the clan and family relations of Mr. Razak Baginda. In addition, these funds will find their way to the dominant political party." Malaysia's dominant political party was and is UMNO.

As to Chahl's assertion that Altantuya had never been a part of the Scorpene equation, it is true that she was not part of the negotiations before Chahl himself was said to have left Perimekar over his demands. But later, when Razak Baginda and Najib visited DCN in 2005, records show she accompanied the Perimekar boss when he and Najib were dealing with matters pertaining to training the Royal Malaysian Navy personnel to operate the submarines.

Despite voluminous attempts by both the pro-government newspapers and pro-government bloggers to assert that Altantuya had never visited Paris or had anything to do with the matter, Razak Baginda himself, when he was under investigation on charges of ordering the two bodyguards to kill the 28-year-old pregnant woman, told investigators he had traveled with her to France in 2005.

Records seized by French investigators from DCN bear that out. According to the records, Abdul Razak Baginda and Altantuya met with Jean Marie Boivin, the alleged French fixer who helped to organize "commissions" for friends in high places to pick DCN's submarines on that same trip. Boivin arranged to pay for a jaunt by Altantuya and Abdul Razak to Macau. In those documents, Altantuya is described as Razak Baginda's translator.

Najib has sworn on the Quran that he never met Altantuya, although she was in France at the same time as he was, accompanying Abdul Razak Baginda.

(John Berthelsen is the editor of the Asia Sentinel)

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