Discover more from Asia Sentinel
Again, What Did Najib Know and When Did He Know It?
Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, in an explosive article in the French daily newspaper Liberation by reporter Arnad Dubus, is tied ever closer to events that led to the murder of Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu. Najib has been selected by the United Malays National Organization as the ethnic political party’s presidential nominee, which is tantamount to his succeeding Abdullah Ahmad Badawi when the latter steps down as prime minister in April.
What follows is a translation of Dubus's article.
Shaaribuu Setev is a bitter and disappointed man. Yet, behind the saddened face of this Mongolian lies a fierce determination. Seated in a sofa in the lobby of an Ulaan Baataar hotel rattled by the gusts of a freezing wind, this 60year-old man is ready to fight. His facial features, hardened by the suffering and the stern climate, and his intense gaze tell all. "My daughter was murdered by Malaysians on Malaysian territory. And they did not have even offer a word of apology," states this professor of psychology at the National University of Mongolia.
The assassination of Setev’s daughter, Altantuya Shaaribuu, took place in October 2006. This was a murder unlike others in a region where business conflicts or petty politics are often settled with a gun. Everything in this case, which started in 2002 when the French Spanish company Armaris concluded the sale of three submarines to the Malaysian government for the amount of €1 billion, is out of the ordinary.
The impact of the "Altantuya case" in France, Malaysia and Mongolia has yet to reach its climax. The murder of the 28 year old Mongolian was the result of a "commission" at the price of €114 million by Armaris to its Malaysian counterpart. This "commission," which was acknowledged by the Malaysian government in front of the Parliament in Kuala Lumpur, has triggered a chain of events that has led to the assassination of Altantuya and the disappearance of several key witnesses in the case.
A report from the Malaysian police, written on 19th November 2006 and which has been kept secret until now (can be read below), reveals dry and precise descriptions as to how the young woman, a member of Asian high society, was killed. In this document, one of the killers, a policeman of the Malaysian Special Branch named Sirul Omar, replied to the questions of an officer at a police station close to the murder scene. "When the Chinese woman saw that I was taking a gun, she begged me to spare her, saying she was pregnant. Azilah (the commanding officer of Sirul) grabbed her and [threw] her on the ground. I immediately shot the left side of her face. Then Azilah took off her clothes and put them in a black plastic bag. Azilah noticed that her hand was still moving. He ordered me to shoot again, which I did", said Sirul.
This is the first confirmation of Altantuya's assassins' identity.
"Then we carried her body into the woods. Azilah wrapped the explosives around her legs, her abdomen and her head, and we exploded her."
The revelation of this report in the French newspaper Liberation is the latest chapter in this colorful and dramatic saga featuring French weapons sellers, a Mongolian shaman, and Malaysian politicians. The case is explosive not only for the Malaysian government, since Deputy Prime minister Najib Razak (who is scheduled to become Prime minister at the end of March) is suspected of having links to the case, but also because it could embarrass the DCNS, a French company specializing in military shipbuilding. The French Spanish company Armaris, which sold two Scorpène and one Agosta submarines to Malaysia in June 2002, was bought by DCNS in 2007.
With her magnetic beauty and sophistication, Altantuya was reminiscent of the troubling image of a Far East Mata Hari. She grew up in Saint Petersburg (Russia), then studied at the Institute of Economic Management in Beijing. Besides speaking English, she was fluent in Russian, Chinese and Korean. The fateful cycle for Altantuya came into gear when she met Abdul Razak Baginda in Hong Kong in 2004. Baginda is a security expert and the director of the Malaysian Strategic Research Center, a pro-government think-tank. The two quickly became romantically involved. Altantuya, nicknamed Tuya by her friends, proved to be a useful assistant, helping Baginda translate from Russian to English.
Whereas Altantuya was young and beautiful, the rich and alluring Baginda was a well known figure of the Kuala Lumpur elite, notably because of his proximity to the Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister and minister of Defense, Najib Razak (he is also his security affairs adviser). Baginda paraded in the most exclusive circles of Kuala Lumpur, sometimes accompanied by his legitimate wife.
In March 2005, Altantuya and Baginda departed for Europe, touring France, Germany, Italy and Portugal in Baginda’s red Ferrari, staying in posh hotels and dining in the finest restaurants of the old Continent. This trip, however, was not only for tourism: the contract for the sale of the submarines had been signed in 2002, but important details had yet to be settled.
"We knew that Baginda was used by Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak as an intermediary for weapons systems deals, especially the high level ones," says a regional security affairs expert.
At the end of March 2005 the couple was in Paris, where they met with Najib Razak. A picture shows the threesome in a Parisian private club. "Tuya showed me the pix. She said that one of the men was her boyfriend, Abdul Razak Baginda, and the other the "big boss", Najib Razak. I asked her if they were brothers because of the names, but she said no, and that Najib Razak was the ‘prime minister’", said Amy, Altantuya’s best friend (Najib Razak has sworn on the Koran that he has never met Altantuya).
According to a private detective now in hiding in India, the beautiful Tuya was also the occasional mistress of the deputy Prime minister, who was introduced to her by Baginda at the end of 2004.
The story became dramatic when, in October 2006, Altantuya was informed that the commission paid by the French-Spanish company Armaris had arrived on a Kuala Lumpur bank account. It had been paid to Perimekar, a company owned by Baginda. Altantuya rushed to Kuala Lumpur in order to claim her share of the commission from Baginda ; she said she was entitled to US$500,000. Baginda and Altantuya had broken up prior to this.
A jealous Rosmah Mansor, the feared businesswoman and wife of Najib Razak, objected to any payment to Altantuya. Altantuya arrived in Kuala Lumpur with two other Mongolian women, one of them was a shaman responsible for putting a spell on Baginda if he refused to pay. For several days, Altantuya harassed her ex-lover.
On the 18th of October, Baginda could no longer tolerate the daily scenes made by Altantuya in front of his house. He contacted the Director of the Special Branch, Musa Safrie, who happened to also be Najib Razak’s aide de camp. On October 19th, 2006, a little before 9 pm, two police officers of the Special Branch, Azilah Hadridan and Sirul Omar, were sent in front of Baginda’s house where Altantuya was gesticulating and shouting. They had the order of "neutralising the Chinese woman." They kidnapped her, and drove her 10 kilometers away and shot her several times. Then they destroyed her body with C4 explosives, a type which can only be obtained from within the Defense Ministry. Her entry into Malaysia was erased from the immigration records. It would appear that Altantuya had never come to Malaysia, because there is no trace left of her.
There is no perfect crime. The taxi driver hired by Altantuya for the day did not appreciate that his passenger was kidnapped under his eyes without payment for the fare. He took note of the registration plate of the kidnapper’s car and filed a complaint at the local police station. In a few days, the police identified the car and realized that it was a government vehicle.
Events unfolded that even the Deputy Prime minister Najib Razak could not impede. He tried to cover the case. A few hours before the arrest of Baginda, he sent him a SMS: "I will see the Inspector General of Police at 11 am today… The problem will be solved. Be cool". A few hours after, Baginda was arrested as well as the two police officers of the Special Branch, Azilah and Sirul.
After a trial considered dubious by many observers, Baginda was acquitted of the accusation of having ordered the murder and released in November 2008. Accused of having perpetrated the murder, Azilah and Sirul appeared in front of the Court last month. If convicted, their sentence is death. The verdict is scheduled for the 9th of April.
Thousands of miles from there, in the Mongolian capital city Ulaan Baataar, Shaariibuu Setev, Altantuya’s father, is trying to control his anger. To him and his family, the acquittal and release of Baginda is symbolic of the unfairness of the Malaysian judicial process: "The Malaysian government is not even answering to the letters from the Mongolian Foreign Affairs Ministry," he says.
When Shaariibuu came to the Malaysian Parliament to meet Najib Razak, the Deputy Prime minister had to escape through a back door in order to avoid an embarrassing encounter. The Altantuya case has become a key element of the Malaysian political game between Najib Razak (who is expected to become Prime Minister after the United Malay Nation Organisation (UMNO) Congress in March) and the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. So far, Najib Razak has navigated around the obstacles, but the murder of the young Mongolian remains a sword suspended over his head.
One of the most obscure aspects of the Altantuya case is the role of the Armaris company. In October 2007, the Malaysian Deputy Defense minister, Zainal Abdidin Zin, acknowledged in front of the Parliament that Armaris had effectively paid €114 million in commissions to Perimekar. He maintained that it was not a bribe, but a payment for "support and coordination services."
Was there corruption as in the case of the Taiwanese frigates in which the French DCNS was also implicated? DCNS, a private company with public financing, has declined our request for a meeting. "Nobody can comment on this case," was the sober reply of the DCNS Press relations officer in Paris.
A document, which could establish a link between Altantuya and the French company is the guarantee letter written by Abdul Razak Baginda so that his mistress could obtain a visa to enter the Schengen zone (of whom France is a member country). The French embassy could not refuse this service to a man decorated with the Legion d’Honneur.
But the role of Altantuya in the submarines negotiations is still not clear. Intelligence agencies find her background intriguing and the Russian FSB (ex-KGB) is following closely the case.
In Ulaan Baataar, Mungunshagai, the eldest son of Altantuya, who is 12 years old, is traumatised by the death of his mother. Altanshagai, the youngest, who is five years old and mentally handicapped, has not understood that he will never see again his mother. "He is asking for her all the time and is staying the whole day prostrated on his chair. Every evening, I bring him sweets and I tell him that his mother gave it to me for him", says Shaaribuu Setev, the grandfather of the two boys.
As for Baginda, he has settled in the United Kingdom with his family. He never uttered a word of regret on the deadly fate of the one who shared his life for two years.