Although Abdul Razak Baginda, the central figure in what was previously Malaysia’s most notorious scandal, has been charged with “active and passive complicity in corruption” by French prosecutors, according to Agence France Press on Aug. 1, it is unlikely that they are going to catch up with him anytime soon.
Razak remains in Malaysia, a close friend of Prime Minister Najib Razak, with extradiction doubtful since the premier himself also figures in a case involving a €114 million bribe to the United Malays National Organization for the purchase of French submarines. It is a case that involves political corruption, murder, sex and allegations that reach high up into both the Malaysian and French governments. Neither Najib nor Razak Baginda is likely to go touring in France anytime soon.
In addition to Razak Baginda, four former Thales International Asia officials have been indicted, including one in December 2015 by a French court for allegedly bribing Najib himself, according to a January 2016 AFP story quoting French judicial sources. The matter seemed to have been stalled after that report although the case has been under investigation for seven years.
Case in 1MDB’s shadow
The affair has since paled in Malaysia in the shadow of the massive 1Malaysia Development Bhd. scandal, in which US$5.4 billion disappeared from a state-backed investment fund through looting and mismanagement that has spurred investigations in half a dozen countries across the world. US prosecutors have alleged that anywhere from US$681 million to US$1 billion disappeared out of 1MDB into Najib’s pockets, part of it to be used to buy a vast store of real estate, paintings and other assets in the United States, which alerted the US Justice Department’s kleptocracy unit to name him a “Public Official 1” and to seize millions of dollars’ worth of assets.
The two cases have given Malaysia an international black eye but have done nothing yet to bring Najib down as prime minister. He remains insulated from defenestration through the payment of fulsome contributions to the top UMNO cadres who might be tempted to oust him. Although the opposition has unified in recent months under the unlikely leadership of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, the betting is that, insulated by gerrymandering, religious xenophobia, political repression and a kept press, he won’t be ousted in the next election, which must be called before mid-2018.
“Apparently after (the opposition Pakatan Harapan) sorted out leadership issues in their coalition, they have been gaining a lot of traction,” said a well-wired political observer in Kuala Lumpur. “The tragedy for Malaysia is that their comeback kid is 92 years old and his “successor” (imprisoned opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim) is in jail.”
As Asia Sentinel reported in a prize-winning series in 2012, a two-decade campaign by DCN and its subsidiaries to sell submarines to Malaysia and other countries resulted in a tangle of blackmail, influence peddling and misuse of corporate assets that took place with the knowledge of top French officials including then-foreign Minister Alain Juppe and with the consent of Mahathir Mohamad as prime minister. The case has had far wider implications, stretching from South America to Pakistan to India to Taiwan and other countries and featuring a series of unexplained deaths as DCN sought to peddle its weapons.
At the center of the Malaysia case were Razak Baginda and Najib, then on a vast weapons acquisition spree as minister of defense, buying fighter jets, patrol boats and armored weapons. The ministry spent US$2 billion for Scorpene submarines manufactured by Thales. A store of documents from French prosecutors made available to Asia Sentinel presented a damning indictment that showed Najib’s goal was to steer the kickbacks to UMNO through a private company called Perimekar Sdn Bhd. whose principal shareholder was Razak Baginda’s wife Masjaliza.
Another €36 million was directed to Terasasi Hong Kong Ltd., whose principal officers were listed as Razak Baginda and his father. The company only existed as a name on a wall in a Hong Kong accounting office. At the time Razak Baginda was then the highly respected head of a Malaysian think tank called Malaysian Strategic Research, which was connected with UMNO.
DCN paid for lovers’ Macau tryst
Among the documents was one that showed a DCN confederate sent Razak Baginda on a jaunt to Macau with his then-girlfriend, Altantuya Shaariibuu, a 28-year-old Mongolian national and international party girl who was later murdered by two of Najib’s bodyguards. Altantuya was said to have also been a lover of Najib before he passed her to his best chum although Najib said he would deny knowing her by swearing on the Quran.
During negotiations at the end of the submarine contract, Altantuya was employed as a translator, according to the documents, although it is questionable how effective her language skills really were. In any case, after a whirlwind tour of Europe in his Ferrari, Razak Baginda apparently tired of Altantuya and jilted her, impelling her to fly to Kuala Lumpur to demand US$500,000 in what she described as blackmail in a letter found in her hotel room after her murder.
Altantuya was grabbed on Oct. 19, 2006 from in front of Razak Baginda’s home by Azilah Hadri and Sirul Azhar Umar, members of an elite police unit responsible as bodyguards for Najib, and was dragged into a car and driven to a forested spot outside the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Sha Alam, where she was knocked unconscious and shot twice in the head. The two then wrapped her body in C4 plastic explosive and blew her up, supposedly to destroy the fetus she was carrying.
Detailed confession not allowed in court
Sirul gave a detailed confession to a fellow police officer in which he described in chilling fashion how the two had killed the woman, who begged for the life of her unborn child. Although Sirul had been read his rights, inexplicably the confession was never introduced in the lengthy trial that followed. At the conclusion of the trial, as he was being sentenced, Sirul broke into tears, telling the judge that he was the "black sheep who has been sacrificed to protect unnamed people."
Although Razak Baginda was quoted in his own statement to police following the discovery of the murder as saying he had asked one of Najib’s aides to “do something” about the woman, who was harassing him, he was excused without the need to present evidence, The aide was never called to testify, nor were a long string of other Malaysian officials with connections to the case.
Ultimately, Azilah and Sirul were sentenced to death. However, the two have never been executed, Sirul, released temporarily on appeal, made tracks for Australia, where he was later detained. He remains there today after having implicated Najib in the murder and then retracted the allegation. Mahathir has repeatedly called vainly for the case to be reopened. Nonetheless, it remains one of Malaysia’s biggest scandals, and is likely to remain so unless a new election sweeps out UMNO and its lieutenants.