A Malaysian Murder Trial to Nowhere

Last Saturday it was exactly two years since a 28-year-old Mongolian translator, Altantuya Shaariibuu was executed and blown up with military explosives in a jungle on the fringe of Kuala Lumpur. And, despite what looked like a routine case in which abundant physical evidence and one confession would be enough for a guilty verdict, the trial of her three accused murderers has been droning on for nearly 18 months.

As the trial grinds on as it has for months, the elephant in the courtroom remains the deputy prime minister, Najib Tun Razak, who along with his wife, Rosmah Mansor, has so far escaped questioning or being called as a witness despite two statutory declarations and other evidence linking them to the dead woman. The questions over Najib’s involvement, or lack of it, are growing in urgency because he is now on track to become the country’s prime minister after Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi designated him last month as his successor.

The three standing trial are Abdul Razak Baginda, a 48-year-old former advisor and close friend of Najib’s, and two of Najib’s bodyguards, who were part of an elite unit specializing in protecting top political figures.

The latest twist is a set of text messages between Najib and Shafee Abdullah, who was represents Razak Baginda, according to an October 11 report on the website Malaysia Today, whose editor, Raja Petra Kamaruddin, currently is standing trial on sedition charges for accusing Najib of being part of the plot to kill Altantuya. In one piece, Raja Petra accused Rosmah of having been present when Altantuya was murdered. She has denied the charge and offered to sue Raja Petra.

One message from Shafee to Najib said: "We provided (the police) everything, including old PDAs and notebooks and a couple of bills. Nothing incriminating." Malaysia Today said the exchange raises questions if anything "incriminating" was kept from the police.

Malaysia Today also suggested that that the message exchange may indicate that Najib had abused his powers as deputy prime minister to interfere with the investigation. Najib subsequently denied that he had abused his power, told reporters the messages are "private" and refused further comment.

"Why do I need to comment? There is no abuse of power," the deputy prime minister told local reporters. ""Why should it be of major concern? The important thing is if there is abuse of power and, if you read it carefully, there is no abuse of power, period."

In any case, whatever the new revelations may be, Najib and Rosmah have remained above it all, gracing functions and appearing in feel-good articles in the government-controlled local media, dishing out platitudes on unity, friendship, integrity and economic management.

Those who exposed the more gruesome aspects of the trial like Raja Petra Kamarudin, editor of Malaysia Today, and P Balasubramaniam, a private investigator hired by Baginda to keep watch on Altantuya, have come under scrutiny. In addition to the sedition charge, Raja Petra is facing charges of criminal defamation for publishing articles on the murder while Bala has gone into hiding after being pulled into a police station to hurriedly retract a statutory declaration which, among other things, claimed that Baginda told him that Najib introduced Altantuya to him in a diamond exhibition in Hong Kong and that she enjoyed anal sex.

{mospagebreak}

Local bloggers are the most vociferous champions of Altantuya. One wrote a gruesome fictional first-person account of how Altantuya may have experienced the murder.

The local media, on the other hand, have buried stories on the murder trial to the inside pages and commentaries calling for justice are rare.

The usual reason given for editors for shying away from the issue is that it is subjudice although occasionally photographs of Najib holding a machine gun or detonating a bomb, and Rosmah aiming a rifle are published in relation to stories on the Defence Ministry, which Najib also heads.

Najib has been widely reported to have been involved as defense minister in a series of unsavoury purchases of submarines, jet fighter planes and other armaments on which individuals close to him, including Razak Baginda, and the United Malays National Organisation earned vast “commissions.” There is strong circumstantial evidence that Altantuya was the translator on at least one of the series of transactions involving the submarine purchases.

There are other questions over how somehow Abdul Razak was allegedly able to involve Najib’s bodyguards in the murder without Najib’s knowledge. Abdul Razak reportedly spoke with Najib’s chief of staff to ask for someone to “do something” about Altantuya, who was harassing him for money after he attempted to end their affair. One of the two bodyguards confessed to the murder, but the confession was stricken, allegedly because the statement wasn’t cautioned. Numerous amounts of other evidence have been tossed out in the marathon case, raising suspicions that the proceedings are being drawn out to prepare for either acquittals or diminished sentences for the three, perhaps to keep them from pointing the finger at Najib.

Now the former premier, Mahathir Mohamad, has come to Najib's defence. He told The Star on Oct 18, that there is a "concerted effort" to demonise Najib. "“I faced all that before. I was labelled many things and was accused of everything," Mahathir said, referring to the countless allegations levelled against him, including fomenting judicial corruption, since he retired.