Closing the Books on Murder in Malaysia

The closing of a case earlier this week by Malaysia's attorney general over allegedly false statements by a private investigator that tied Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak to the 2006 murder of Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu literally lets unknown persons close to the prime minister get away with murder.

The closure of the case appears to write the final chapter in one of Malaysia's most sensational murder cases, one involving a gruesome death, intrigue in high places, more than 100 million euros in alleged bribes and a trial that appeared to be rigged to keep prosecutors as far as possible away from Najib, then the deputy prime minister, and his wife, Rosmah Mansor.

The private investigator, P Balasubramaniam, was hired in 2006 by Abdul Razak Baginda, one of Najib's best friends and a defense analyst from the Malaysian Strategic Research Centre think-tank, to attempt to keep Altantuya away from Baginda because he had jilted her. She was demanding revenge and US$500,000 for her role as a translator in the sale of French submarines to Malaysia. A French prosecutorial team continues to probe the sale of the subs to Malaysia and whether kickbacks were paid to top French and Malaysian politicians.

In July of 2008, as the trial droned on, Balasubramaniam issued a statutory declaration alleging that Najib, then the deputy prime minister, was involved in the murder, only to retract the entire contents of the declaration a day later and issue a second saying he had made the first under duress (Note: Both declarations can be found here).

Balasubramaniam's lawyer, Americk Sidhu, denounced the closing of the case, saying that if the supposedly false statements were investigated thoroughly by police, they would have led to the conclusion that people close to Najib were involved in the murder.

De facto Law Minister Nazri Aziz, in a written statement to parliament, said the case was closed because Balasubramaniam had given conflicting statutory declarations, and that anyway, they didn't affect the trial of two of Najib's personal bodyguards and Abdul Razak Baginda, which ended in April of 2009 after a 159-day trial in which the bodyguards were sentenced to death. They are appealing the verdict, with suspicions running high that they will somehow be given their freedom in exchange for their silence on whoever ordered them to kill the woman.

"Although there are contradictions between the two statutory declarations, the contradictions do not affect the outcome of the trial of Altantuya," Nazri said. "Moreover, the individual (Balasubramaniam) is still believed to be abroad." Nazri added that the decision to close the case was made after "careful consideration" of the results of the police probe and witness statements.

Although the two bodyguards were convicted of the crime, Baginda was acquitted under controversial circumstances without having to put on a defense. He then hurriedly left the country for England, where he has remained ever since. One of the two bodyguards said in a cautioned statement that they had been hired to commit the killing and were to be paid RM100,000 to do it. But the statement was never introduced into the marathon trial and never was anybody asked who had done the hiring or made the payment offer.

The 27-year-old Altantuya, the translator in some phases of the billion-dollar purchase of French Scorpene submarines that netted Baginda's company €114 million in consulting fees, was shot in the head and her body was blown up with explosives in a patch of jungle near the suburban city of Shah Alam. Before she died, she told Balasubramaniam she had been promised US$500,000 for assisting in the submarine transaction.

In the bodyguard's cautioned statement, it emerged that Altantuya, almost with her last words, told her two assailants that she was pregnant and begged them not to kill her. That has led to speculation that her body was blown up with C4 explosives to hide any DNA evidence of who the father might be.

Balasubramaniam, who remains somewhere in Chennai, has continued to insist loudly that Razak Baginda, who is married, had told him that the translator had been Najib's sexual companion before the then-deputy prime minister passed her on to Baginda because it wouldn't look good for a prospective prime minister to have a girlfriend.

After making the first declaration, Balasubramaniam was hauled into a Kuala Lumpur police station, where he was forced to recant it in a second under threat to his family, he later testified. After that, according to statements he made under oath, he was taken to meet with Mohamad Nizam Razak, Najib's brother, and Deepak Jaikishan, described as a "business associate" of Najib's wife, Rosmah Mansor, where he was promised RM5 million to leave the country and shut up. He later displayed cancelled checks showing he had been paid RM750,000 out of an account maintained by Jaikishan. According to his sworn statement, Balasubramaniam said Rosmah was "very pleased" that he had agreed to retract the statutory declaration and wanted to have breakfast with him.

Nazri told the parliament that Balasubramaniam was initially investigated for providing false statements, which would make him liable to three years in jail and a fine. That makes it a mystery why the case was dropped against him, since one of the statutory declarations was demonstrably false – either the one implicating Najib and describing the murder, or the one recanting it.

A team from the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission first made an appointment to interview Balasubramaniam in the UK, where he was staying out of fear for his safety, but cancelled the appointment without an explanation.

"The evidence is staring you in the face," Sidhu said in a telephone interview from Australia. "A whole pile of witnesses can confirm the first statement and who have been investigated by the police have said the original statement was made of his own free will. If they had investigated, they would have had to interview Rosmah, Nizam and Jaikashan over the checks to Bala.They can't afford to charge him. If they do that, they would hang themselves. They had no alternative but to close the file to save Najib and his entourage."

To say Balasubramaniam's first statement was explosive is an understatement. In addition to saying Najib had been Altantuya's lover before he turned her over to Razak Baginda, Balasubramaniam wrote that Najib had a sexual relationship with the Mongolian woman and that she liked anal sex. Before she was killed, according to the statement, she told Balasubramaniam that she, Baginda and Najib had been together at a dinner in Paris during the transaction over the submarines.

Najib has repeatedly denied he had ever met the woman, swearing to Allah that no meeting had taken place. During the trial of the two elite bodyguards, a friend of Altantuya who had accompanied the woman to Malaysia said there was no record in immigration that she had ever been in the country.