Altantuya's Killers Judged Guilty

Two Malaysian police bodyguards have been sentenced to death for the October 2006 murder of Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu, in a case that raised as many questions as were ever answered, including who, according to the testimony of one of the two, offered RM50,000 to RM100,000 to kill her.

The trial of Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri and Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar has been intricately connected to the fortunes of Najib Tun Razak, who was installed as Malaysia's prime minister last Friday. Azilah and Sirul served as bodyguards in an elite police unit supervised by Najib, then the country's deputy prime minister. Also on trial with the two, but acquitted without having to put on a defense, was Altantuya's jilted lover and one of Najib's best friends, political analyst Abdul Razak Baginda. Razak Baginda almost immediately left Malaysia for Oxford, where he is seeking a doctorate degree.

According to the Associated Press, the two men listened impassively as High Court Judge Zaki Yasin ruled that he found their defense "unbelievable" as "each of them are blaming the other." He said he was convicting "both of you as charged" with murdering 28-year-old Mongolian Altantuya Shaariibuu sometime between Oct. 19 and Oct. 20, 2006. "They failed to raise any reasonable doubt" of the prosecution's case, Zaki said. Lawyers said the two would appeal the verdict.

From the start of the trial, during which prosecutors and the judge were hurriedly switched without warning, to the end, when the verdict was delayed since last February until after the United Malays National Organisation convention that named Najib party leader and thus prime minister, the case has appeared more about suppressing evidence and protecting Najib than determining the guilt or innocence of the accused.

By several accounts, the 28-year-old woman, who was executed with two bullets to the head in a jungle clearing near the suburban city of Shah Alam and whose body was blown up with military explosives, was at the very center of a massive scandal scandal over the purchase by Malaysia of three French submarines. Altantuya, then Razak Baginda's lover, reportedly was the translator in the purchase, which cost Malaysian taxpayers €1 billion (US$1.32 billion in current dollars), netted a company controlled by Razak Baginda €114 million (US$151 million) in "commissions," according to testimony in Malaysia's parliament.

By Razak Baginda's own cautioned statement to the police, he grew tired of Altantuya and broke up with her after a year-long affair in which he gifted her thousands of dollars. However, she flew to Malaysia to demand as much as US$500,000, according to other reports, for her part in the purchase of the submarines. As she stood in front of Razak Baginda's house, demanding that he come out, the two policemen, accompanied by a policewoman, swooped down on her, tossed her into the back of a car, and she was never seen again.

In a cautioned statement that was never introduced in court, Sirul testified that he and Azilah had attached explosives to the woman's legs up to her abdomen and her head, raising questions why they had sought to destroy her abdomen rather, for instance, than her hands, which could identify the body. In his statement, he said that as she begged for her life, she said she was pregnant. Presumably the explosives would have destroyed any DNA samples of whose baby was inside her, if any.

P. Balasubramaniam, a private detective hired by Razak Baginda to keep the woman away from him, swore in an intensively detailed statutory declaration that he was told by Razak Baginda that Altantuya had been the lover of Najib as well, that she liked anal sex, and that she had been passed on to the analyst because Najib intended to become prime minister and didn't want a sex scandal hanging over his head. In the declaration, Balasubramaniam said he had seen text messages from Najib after Altantuya disappeared, telling him to "be cool" and that he would take care of the matter.

After delivering his statutory declaration, which can be found here, Balasubramaniam was summoned to a Kuala Lumpur police station, where he was forced into a total recantation of the document. He and his entire family disappeared. There apparently was never an attempt made by the court trying the three men to find him and ask him to testify as to the accuracy of the statement.

Myriads of other questions remain over the trial. In Sirul's cautioned statement, which can be found here, the police constable said Azhar told him Najib's chief of staff, Musa Safri, had ordered them to pick up the young woman. Azhar first suggested going to the Hotel Malaya, where she and two friends were staying, to kill them all, but decided not to because of the presence of closed-circuit cameras. Neither of the two was ever asked in court about Musa's involvement in the matter, nor about their relationship to Najib.

Burmaa Oyunchimeg, Altantuya's cousin who accompanied her to Kuala Lumpur and one of the two women whom Sirul and Azhar presumably intended to kill in the hotel, testified in the trial that she had seen a picture of Najib together with Razak Baginda and Altantuya. Both the prosecution and the defense leapt to their feet and asked that her testimony be stricken and she was never asked about it again. She also testified that when she attempted to leave the country, there was no indication that she had ever arrived there, leading to questions of how her records had disappeared from the immigration department. No questions were ever asked about how that could have happened either.

When Razak Baginda was first brought into court in June of 2007, his wife, Mazlina, shouted, asking why he was being brought to trial when he had no ambition to become prime minister, which could have been construed as a reference to the allegation of Najib's relationship to Altantuya that was described b Balasubramaniam. Mazlina has never been asked to explain her statement.

Nor has Najib, along with Musa Safri, ever been asked to appear in court or been questioned about the case. With his elevation to prime minister, it appears unlikely that either ever will be, unless Sirul or Azilah were somehow to give a jailhouse interview about what really happened in a case in which Malaysia's legal and political systems have closed tightly around the establishment to protect it. There is no indication of what will be done with the two urns containing the attractive young woman's bones that were exhibited in court.

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