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Altantuya Verdict Leaves Mastermind Unnamed
RM5 million judgment for murdered woman’s death a paltry compensation
The December 16 decision in a Malaysian High Court finding three men liable for the 2006 death of Altantuya Shaariibuu in one of the country’s most controversial murder cases brings partial justice for the family of the then-28-year-old jet-setting Mongolian woman, but it leaves unnamed the man many believe to have been the mastermind behind her killing – former Prime Minister Najib Razak, as well as his top aide Musa Safri.
Judge Vazeer Alam Mydin Meeraudge, in a trial that began in 2019, ruled that two of Najib’s elite bodyguards, former Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri and then-Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar, along with Najib’s close friend Abdul Razak Baginda, and the Malaysian government are liable for RM5 million (US$1.13 million) in damages, a fraction of the RM100 million sought by the family of the slain woman. Najib wasn’t named in the suit.
The pregnant Altantuya was killed in gruesome fashion on October 18, 2006 by Sirul and Azilah, who drove her to a patch of forest outside the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Shah Alam, shot her in the head twice, then blew up her body with C4 explosives, ostensibly to hide her pregnancy.
The current case was brought by Altantuya's father, Ulan Bataar psychiatrist Shaariibuu Setev, her mother Altantsetseg Sanjaa, and Altantuya’s two sons, Mungunshagai Bayarjargal and Altanshagai Munkhtulga, claiming that her killing had resulted in mental shock and psychological trauma. They sought compensation as well as exemplary and aggravated damages. The defendants must each pay RM25,000 in costs.
Both Azilah, who remains in a Malaysian prison, and Sirul, who is now in an Australian refugee detention facility, have signed sworn statements saying Najib had conveyed the order to kill the woman through his aide-de-camp, Musa Safri, saying she was a spy. Former Attorney General Tommy Thomas, in his book My Story: Justice in the Wilderness, wrote that evidence amassed by prosecutors “implicated not only Najib Razak as the person who gave [one of the bodyguards] the order to kill, but also his aide-de-camp, Musa Safri, for assisting or abetting Najib.” It is unlikely he will ever be brought to trial, legal scholars say, given that Sirul’s and Azilah’s sworn statements are impeachable since both are convicted murderers. Najib has since filed a defamation suit against Thomas.
Azilah and Sirul were convicted of Altantuya’s murder in 2009 after a marathon trial that lasted for nearly four months and went to painstaking lengths to avoid bringing up the question of who might have had the motive to order her death. Abdul Razak Baginda, who acknowledged asking for help in getting rid of her, was acquitted without having to stand trial in the original case. He immediately left for Europe and was out of Malaysia for years.
The case was closely tied to the RM1 billion purchase of French submarines ordered by Najib Razak when he was defence minister between 1990 and 1995. The story began when Najib embarked on a whirlwind modernization of the country’s military with a spate of contracts, almost all of which appeared to have featured kickbacks that enriched the United Malays National Organization and individuals connected to the process.
The submarine purchase was acknowledged to have generated the equivalent of US$141 million in “consulting fees” that by any other name were kickbacks to UMNO. Records showed that Abdul Razak Baginda received US$28 million through a shell company in Hong Kong.
“Altantuya’s murder is a sad and shocking testament of the lengths some corrupt individuals would go to in order to protect their interests – there are strong indications that her involvement as a translator and negotiator in the procurement of two Scorpene-class submarines from the French company Naval Group (formerly known as DCNS) was a key factor in her murder,” said the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism, a good-government NGO in Kuala Lumpur “It bears reminding that former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was defence minister at the time, handpicked his close associate Razak Baginda and his company Perimekar as the direct negotiators of the submarines from DCNS and its parent company, Thales.”
Legal proceedings in France determined that Razak Baginda had received €114 million (RM570 million) in commissions and kickbacks from Thales and DCNS through Perimekar, which according to French investigators appeared to have been established for no other reason than to act as a conduit for the kickback, which the investigators said was likely routed to UMNO with the full knowledge of then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and then-French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe. Razak Baginda was later indicted in France for offences related to bribery. The former chairman of DCNS and chief executive of Thales were also both indicted for corruption. There has been no verdict.
Asia Sentinel was cited for excellence in investigative reporting by the Society of Publishers in Asia – Asia’s most prestigious journalism award – in 2014 for its reporting on the scandal.
Altantuya was a party girl on the international circuit who according to reports at the time was first the girlfriend of Najib Razak, who passed her on to Abdul Razak Baginda, then a well-connected defence analyst. She was reported to have toured Europe with Razak Baginda in his Ferrari and, according to documents made available to Asia Sentinel at the time, served as a translator on the purchase of the submarines
Apparently Razak Baginda tired of her and she later showed up in Kuala Lumpur, demanding US$500,000 in what she described as “blackmail” in a letter in her handwriting found in her hotel room after her death. She was in front of Razak Baginda’s Kuala Lumpur home shouting curses at him and demanding that he come out when Azilah and Sirul showed up, dragged her into their vehicle and drove away.
The two, members of an elite force that provides protection to top political figures, were almost immediately identified as her assailant and separately led investigators to the murder site. Sirul signed a cautioned statement in painful detail describing the kidnapping from start to finish, ending in her murder as she was knocked unconscious with the butt of a gun and then killed.
That confession kicked off years of attempts to confine the crime to the bodyguards without explaining why the two, who had never seen the woman or known her, would have reason to kill her. The trial was rife with procedural irregularities including the replacement of the entire prosecution team on the day before its commencement. Statements by witnesses were hurriedly expunged when they appeared to show a role of the government in the case. The High Court in finding Azilah and Sirul guilty found there was no motive for the killing.
Both were convicted and sentenced to death. When the two were freed temporarily on appeal in a decision that was regarded as suspicious, Sirul decamped for Australia. The guilty verdict was later reinstated. Australia refuses to extradite Sirul back to Malaysia because of the latter’s use of the death penalty. Since both have spent more than a decade in prison, it is unlikely they will be able to pay off the judgment.
A total of 26 witnesses for the plaintiffs, including Altantuya's father and eldest son, testified in the trial that began in 2019. The government presented three witnesses, while Abdul Razak chose not to testify, according to the Malaysia-based publication The Edge.
Najib Razak and UMNO were ousted from power in 2018. He is currently serving 12 years in prison for his part in looting a subsidiary of the ill-starred state-backed fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd, which collapsed in 2016 in a welter of corruption and mismanagement in which US$5.4 billion disappeared and saddled the government with billions more in debt. He faces more legal action for his role in the collapse of 1MDB itself.