A Detailed Look at a Spectacular Malaysian Scandal

Kuala Lumpur-based senior lawyer mounts a crusade over a murdered woman

Perhaps more than any individual in Malaysia – or anywhere, for that matter – a 63-year-old lawyer named Americk Sidhu is dedicated to keeping alive the case of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a beautiful Mongolian woman who was slain in gruesome fashion in a patch of jungle near the suburban city of Shah Alam on the night of October 18, 2006, by two elite police commandos who served as bodyguards for former Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Sidhu, who has spent much of his career defending pro bono cases in Kuala Lumpur, has written a 15-part, 19,000-word minutely detailed analysis of the case against the two policemen and its aftermath. It can be found on his blog, “Decipherings.” 

The killing, a relatively small part of an affair involving massive defense purchases, kickbacks, bribery, adultery, blackmail, multiple murders and political chicanery on the part of senior French and Malaysian officials, has been largely eclipsed by the theft and mismanagement of US$4.8 billion in the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd. 

Nonetheless, for tragedy and intrigue, it remains one of the country’s most macabre scandals. The woman was shot twice in the head and her body was blown up with C4 military explosives, apparently to hide the possibility that she was pregnant at the hands of a high-ranking Malaysian official or someone close to him. 

For one who has covered the death of Altantuya Shaariibuu since a few days after she was murdered and who has fought as a journalist both for justice for her and her orphaned son in Mongolia, as well as for exposure of the entire affair surrounding Malaysia’s purchase of US$1 billion worth of unneeded submarines, Sidhu has provided an essential record. One hopes there will someday be justice.

After a trial that because of delays took the better part of two years, which a confidential US Embassy cable described as apparently “subject to strong political pressure to protect Najib,” Chief Inspector Azila Hadri and Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar were convicted and sentenced to hang on April 9, 2009 in a farce designed to make sure the names of those who had paid the two to kill the 28-year-old translator and party girl were never known. 

In the ensuing 11 years, which included one acquittal at the appellate level, followed by a swift prosecution appeal to the Federal Court and re-conviction, the two have continued to escape the noose, raising widespread suspicions that they were assured that by keeping quiet, they would eventually be freed somehow. 

As one well-connected source in Kuala Lumpur pointed out, the case against the two policemen was adjudicated 11 years ago. It has gone through the entire appeal process and has been effectively concluded. Today, although Azilah in December issued a spectacular confession implicating Najib, it is the word of a convicted murderer against a former prime minister who is perceived as a crook. It isn’t likely to be reopened. 

Asked why he has devoted this much time and effort to a 14-year-old case, Sidhu responded: “This entire morbid fiasco needs to be resurrected and those hidden hands responsible who operated behind the scenes, and with impunity, have to be brought to answer for what they did. At the end of the day, this is really a battle of the weak against the strong, politically connected, power-mad hooligans who were then in control and who thought they could literally get away with murder and any other crime they cared to commit.”

The case, he contends, could be reopened based on fresh allegations made by Azilah in his confession, which was carried by Asia Sentinel on December 17, 2019. As he points out, Azilah’s confession bears a remarkable resemblance to another by Sirul, which was made two years ago, and which has never been made public. Both say they were ordered as policemen to kill Altantuya over allegations that she was a foreign spy. 

His own motivation, he said, was built on his 2010 representation of a private investigator named Perumal Balasubramaniam, who had verifiable information on circumstances around the original night when Altantuya was kidnapped and murdered. Bala, as he was known, made his information available to police, but he was never asked to be interviewed and was never asked to testify in the trial of Azilah and Sirul because the information he possessed would have led to Najib Razak, then the defense minister, and his best friend, Abdul Razak Baginda, both of whom were deeply involved in a scandal over kickbacks over submarines purchased by the defense ministry.

Instead, Bala was hounded out of the country, his life largely destroyed. He died under mysterious circumstances of what was purported to be a heart attack.

“I was privy to the destruction of a family (Bala's) by the actions of those who held high office and were only concerned about their own agendas,” Sidhu said. “It got me thinking that if they were prepared to go to such an extent to get rid of Bala and his family, then what else were they prepared to do to cover up other issues that have arisen from this unexplained murder? There remain far too many unanswered questions concerning the motive (or lack thereof) for Azilah and Sirul to have assassinated Altantuya in cold blood and for no apparent reason.”

Azilah’s revelations, he says, “combined with the evidence Sirul presented before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in Australia give us a very clear clue of the possible motive. There is, at this point in time, no other plausible reason besides that which both have alluded to...that they were ordered to eliminate a foreign spy who posed a danger to national security. This entire morbid fiasco needs to be resurrected and those hidden hands responsible who operated behind the scenes, and with impunity, have to be brought to answer for what they did.”

The 15 episodes he provides on his blog, several of them previously published in the popular Malaysian news site Malaysiakini, spell out in minute detail the sections of the penal code on which to base a reopening of the case.

He explores the entire history, “the investigations into her murder conducted by a polarized police force, the stage-managed trial of Razak Baginda, Azilah and Sirul, the revelations made by PI Bala and his prompt ‘banishment’ from Malaysia, the shenanigans that went on while he was away, the atrocious behavior of a complicit and spineless judiciary, the participation of delinquent lawyers, Sirul’s escape to Australia and his detention at Villawood, the flurry of activity in Sydney to keep him silent and all the overwhelming evidence which has emerged since.

Many new names have been added to the original list of players in this ordeal, he writes. “Their roles have been for one purpose and one purpose alone, and that is to protect Najib Razak from any connection with Altantuya and her murder. Lawyers, prosecutors, judges, attorney generals, police, politicians and businessmen have all played roles in the cover-up of the century and will be identified as the tale unfolds. As someone quite rightly pointed out recently; you certainly couldn’t make this stuff up.“

Indeed. You probably couldn’t. It’s all there, as much a political drama as a closely argued legal appeal.