Some seriously troubling questions in Malaysia

unbelievable spectacle took place in the bizarre murder trial of
Mongolian beauty Altantuya Shaaribuu on June 29. Karpal Singh, the
lawyer for the victim’s family, attempted to ask a question
about a “government official" allegedly seen in a
photograph with the victim. At that point, both the prosecutor and
the defense lawyer sprang to their feet in unison to block the

This resulted in a
shouting match, with Singh on one side, the victim’s cousin on
the stand, and the combined forces of the prosecution and defense
blocking the line of questioning.

Earlier, a similar division
of forces occurred when a Mongolian witness – a girlfriend of
the victim   told the court that immigration entry computer
records of the deceased and her two Mongolian companions, including
the witness, had been mysteriously erased. When Singh asked the court
to take proper note of this highly irregular event, both the
prosecution and defense objected to the evidence as irrelevant, and
insisted that it be expunged.

Now, isn't that a strange
phenomenon? A prosecutor is supposed to seek justice for the deceased
victim's family against the murderers, so how come the prosecutor is
now ganging up with defense lawyers to oppose the victim's family
lawyer? Is this a case of prosecutor vs. defense or a case of
prosecutor plus defense vs. victim's family? Obviously, the
prosecution and defense seem to have plenty of common interests. What
are those common interests?

The answer may lie in the
identity of that "government official" that allegedly
appeared in the photograph with Altantuya that both prosecution and
defense tried so hard not to allow into court.

On Day 10 of the trial, Altantuya's cousin Burmaa
Oyunchimeg testified that after Altantuya returned from France, she
went to Hong Kong to meet Burmaa, and showed her a photograph of
Altantuya and her lover, Abdul Razak Baginda, who is accused of
conspiring in her murder, and "a government official"
taking a meal together. Answering Singh later, after the shouting
match in the court had subsided, she said this "government
official" was Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak.

She could distinctly
remember the name, she said, because it bears a similarity to
Altantuya’s acknowledged lover's name, and she even asked
Altantuya whether they were brothers. Burmaa further added that the
photo had also been shown to Altantuya's father.

Now, the
revelation of Najib in the photo would not have caused such a
sensation if not for the deputy prime minister's oft-repeated denial
of any knowledge of Altantuya, including a public denial during a
recent by-election, when even the name of Allah was invoked.

does Najib have to say now that his denial is directly contradicted
by the witness Burmaa? His press secretary Tengku Sarifuddin Tengku
Ahmad issued a brief statement on June 30 saying that the deputy
prime minister had declined to comment for two reasons. One, any
comment might be sub judice, since the case is in court, and,
two, Najib had already repeatedly denied an acquaintance with the
girl in the past, "as such, the issue over the picture does not
arise,” the spokesman said.

Sub judice? That’s
ridiculous. How could a simple statement like "I have never had
my photo taken with Altantuya" be sub judice? In fact, being the
number-two leader in the government, Najib is absolutely duty-bound
to say outright whether he was ever photographed with Altantuya, in
view of the serious implications of Burmaa's allegation.

issue over the picture does not arise? Equally ridiculous. In fact,
the opposite is true. Precisely because of Najib's past denials, it
is all the more imperative that Najib must stand up now to clarify.

Guilty conscience?

There is only one
explanation for Najib's past denials and his present silence: A
guilty conscience. If Najib's conduct with respect to the case had
been above-board, there would be no reason for him to deny an
acquaintance with his friend Abdul Razak’s friend Altantuya.
Similarly, if the allegation of the picture is false, it is
inconceivable and totally incomprehensible that Najib should have
chosen not to refute Burmaa's allegation.

In fact, Najib
seems so worried about the publicity of the picture that his
secretary called editors in the local press and requested them not to
blow up the issue. This resulted in the explosive story being absent
from the local headlines the next day. (In one Chinese paper –
Guang Ming – the Najib story hit the front page in the evening
edition, but disappeared completely by the next morning). And of
course, Anwar Ibrahim's criticism of the trial and his specific call
on Najib to clarify the issue of the picture during a press
conference was generally blacked out.

However, despite such
new suppression, irreversible damage is done. There is little doubt
that Najib is deeply troubled and his political position seriously

That this murder case has
been subjected to serious political manipulation has been obvious
from the very start, when the police commenced their highly
questionable investigation, right through to the present trial when
the conduct of lawyers for both sides appear increasingly dubious.
Instead of the prosecutor seeking the truth and the defense lawyer
fighting for the accused, both seem preoccupied with an overriding
mission – to prevent the whole truth from emerging. Their
combined efforts to cover up the issue of the immigration record and
the identity of Najib Razak in the picture are just two examples of
such conduct.

The highly irregular nature of this case was
also marked by frequent and mysterious changes of legal personnel,
resulting in a complete change-over of the defense team, the
prosecutors and the judge even before the hearings began. These weird
phenomena were crowned by the shock appearance of a new team of
prosecutors who were appointed only hours before the hearing was
supposed to begin, thus necessitating an impromptu postponement of
the trial for two weeks. None of these changes of legal personnel has
been properly explained, except for the resignation of Abdul Razak’s
first lawyer; Zulkifli Noordin, quit, he said, because of "serious
interference by third parties".

Under these
circumstances, the public must brace itself for more aberrant
scenarios from this court, while Najib and his supporters may have to
keep their fingers crossed in the days ahead when many more witnesses
have yet to walk through what must appear to Najib as a minefield.

On a more serious note, this unseemly trial does not exactly
add credit to Malaysia’s system, whose already wretched image
has just been further mauled by the shameful finale of another sham
trial – that of Eric Chia of Perwaja Steel fame. After seven
long years of investigations and three years of court hearings, that
case was thrown out due to lack of prima facie evidence. With
that, the long-drawn out Perwaja Steel saga ended without finding any
culprit for the mountain of losses (more than RM 10 billion) suffered
by taxpayers.

There has been a spate of criminal cases being
dismissed of late due to inadequate investigations and poor
prosecution, indicating that the downward slide of our criminal
justice system, which began in the Mahathir era, has gotten worse
under Abdullah Badawi's leadership. With the criminal justice system
in a shambles, the rule of law is in jeopardy. And that is an
important benchmark to judge the efficacy of Abdullah's
administration vis-à-vis his reform agenda.

Kim Quek is a Malaysia-based commentator.

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