French Lawyer Detained in Kuala Lumpur

William Bourdon, a French lawyer working for the human rights group Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) as the leader of a Paris-based team investigating allegations of massive kickbacks to Malaysian and French officials in the US$1 billion sale of submarines to Malaysia, was taken off a plane Friday at Kuala Lumpur International Airport by immigration officials and ordered out of the country.

Later in the day, Bourdon , who had been contacted by the Malaysian NGo Suaram to investigate the alleged kickbacks, emailed reporters in Kuala Lumpur to say he was to be put aboard an 11:30 p.m. plane for Paris the same night, cutting short his visit to the country .

“Everything is okay. I am so sorry to leave my friends; we fly tonight for Paris. Keep in touch, take care and have courage,” the lawyer said in an email to Malaysiakini reporter Susan Loone.

The detention and deportation is a major embarrassment that internationalizes the controversy just at a time when Prime Minister NajibTun Razak has been seeking to repair the country's overseas image with visits to European dignitaries including Queen Elizabeth and the Pope.

Malaysia has taken a major battering over the past month, first with a violent crackdown on peaceful marchers seeking to present a petition to the country’s king asking for election reform. After that, censors blacked out details of a report about the march carried in The Economist, hardly a radical publication. That was followed Thursday with the results of a royal commission of inquiry that concluded that a young aide to an opposition politician had been hounded so badly during interrogation over office spending that he threw himself out of a window and killed himself.

The detention of a lawyer seeking to ferret out details of a defense procurement scandal lcertainly isn’t going to help. Bourdon was flying into Kuala Lumpur after speaking to hundreds of people in Penang at a fundraiser to continue the investigation of the submarine transaction. Earlier, in an interview before he left for Kuala Lumpur, Bourdon told Asia Sentinel that French police had made what he called substantial progress in procuring the details of the submarine transaction and that he hoped to have access to them in September.

The allegations of kickbacks have surrounded the sale of the submarines virtually since the transaction was completed in 2002. However, the case, which could have the potential to bring down the Malaysian government, has been kept under wraps by a government apparently anxious to protect the man who engineered the transaction – then-Defense Minister Najib, now Malaysia’s prime minister. The case involves the payment of €114 million in “commissions” to Perimekar Sdn. Bhd., a company wholly owned by Abdul Razak Baginda, then a well-wired security consultant and one of Najib’s best friends.

At the Penang dinner Thursday, Bourdon told the crowd that that names and details from the submarine sale would be made public when a corruption trial for the state-owned French defense giant DCNS starts later this year. Bourdon said that even bigger commissions – illegal under French law – were paid to "extremely high level" government officials in Malaysia.

Enmeshed inextricably in the case – and playing a major role in keeping it alive -- is the gruesome murder of Mongolian party girl and translator Altantuya Shaariibuu in 2006, the jilted lover of Razak Baginda, by two of Najib’s bodyguards. According to a confession by one of the two, they were to be paid RM50,000 to RM100,000 to kill the woman and two friends who had accompanied her from Mongolia to confront the security consultant. Altantuya had acted as a translator on part of the deal and was asking Razak Baginda for US$500,000, according to a letter found in her Kuala Lumpur hotel room after her death. In the letter, she expressed regret for attempting to blackmail the Razak Baginda.

If that weren’t enough, the DCNS sale to Malaysia is part of a much bigger story involving defense procurement officials in Pakistan and Taiwan as well as perhaps India, and some of the French government’s top politicians including Jacques Chirac and Edouard Balladur.

Details have been leaking out over recent months after a long period in which the case appeared to be closed. Razak Baginda, immediately after being cleared of complicity in the 28-year-old woman’s murder, fled to the UK, where he has remained ever since.

However, on Monday, Suaram told Malaysiakini that Abdul Razak and Altantuya had traveled to Hong Kong and Macau with someone identified as a "mystery individual” related to negotiations over the deal. The suspicion is that the “mystery individual" was Najib, although he has offered to swear on the Quran that he had never met her.

Suaram reportedly was organizing dinners in three Malaysian cities to seek to raise funds to prosecute the case in France. Bourdon and his team have been providing legal services for free up to this point, but costs are expected to skyrocket when the court hearings begin. Suaram has said it hopes to raise about RM100,000 to cover the legal costs.