French Lawyers Seek Malaysian PM Najib to Testify in Sub Scandal

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak and his onetime close friend Abdul Razak Baginda are the “priority witnesses” in an investigation into bribes and kickbacks amounting to about €150 million in the sale of Scorpene submarines to the Malaysian Ministry of Defense, French lawyer Apoline Cagnat told a press conference in Singapore today.

Cagnat is a member of the Paris-based firm headed by William Bourdon, which has been retained by the Malaysian human rights NGO Suaram in a probe by the French judiciary.

Cagnat told a briefing for Malaysian parliamentarians in Singapore that, of the seven witnesses submitted by Suaram and accepted by the French judiciary, Najib and Razak are the most important.

It is highly unlikely, however, that the French authorities probing the scandal would be able to persuade the head of a sovereign state, especially one who is suspected of helping to facilitate the transfer of kickbacks to the United Malays National Organization, the biggest party in the ruling national coalition, to testify. It is also difficult to imagine what they would be willing to add to the dialogue about the case if indeed they were called to testify. And, although threats of subpoenas have been made in the past, there was no indication in Cagnat’s comments that they are being issued.

Nonetheless, “I hope the judges manage to interrogate them,” Cagnat told reporters. Cagnat gave her press conference in Singapore after Suaram said it was unable to obtain an assurance from the government that it would guarantee the security of the French lawyers, who had been asked by Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim to brief parliament on the case. The speaker of the parliament, Amin Mulia, said he wouldn’t allow the briefing to take place in Parliament's compound.

The other five witnesses are the current Defense Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi , Setev Shaariibuu, the father of murdered Mongolian national Altantuya Shaariibuu, private investigator P Balasubramaniam, Boustead Holdings Bhd group managing director and deputy chairperson Lodin Wok Kamaruddin, and Jasbir Singh Chahl, said to be Razak's right-hand man but who fell out with the onetime security consultant and threatened suit because he reportedly didn’t get a big enough share of the commission paid on the submarines.

Bourdon himself was bundled out of Malaysia by immigration authorities in July of 2011 after giving details of the alleged scandal in a speech in Penang to hundreds of people at a fundraiser to continue his investigation. Scheduled to give two more speeches in Malaysia, Bourdon was taken off a flight at Kuala Lumpur International Airport and was put on another plane out of the country over his protests.

Bourdon and Suaram have been battered by both the mainstream press, which is largely government-owned, and an army of bloggers who say the scandal has been overblown and that no trial had been ordered by French authorities. Neither Bourdon, Suaram nor Asia Sentinel, which has reported extensively on the case, have ever said a trial was imminent. But the investigation is continuing and investigating magistrates have been appointed by the French courts. Two investigating judges, Serge Tournaire and Roger Le Loire, were appointed in March to investigate the case. They have broad powers to investigate independently and can call witnesses and conduct international surveys.

French police acting on a request from Bourdon’s legal team raided the headquarters of the state-owned defense giant DCN and its subsidiaries and came up with a wealth of detail that enmeshed former French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, current Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and a host of others in the scandal, as well as top officials with DCN.

On June 25, Asia Sentinel published 133 confidential documents from the French court giving exhaustive details on the scandal and uploaded them here. An accompanying story explaining the documents, which were written in French, can be found here.

In the succeeding weeks, and with what is expected to be an extremely close election, the United Malays National Organization and media aligned with it have initiated an unprecedented attack on Suaram, its director Cynthia Gabriel, and independent news organizations that have carried the story, particularly the popular website Malaysiakini, which has 300,000 daily unique viewers. Suaram has been investigated under the companies act, allegedly because its funding is suspect. Malaysiakini editor Steven Gan and publisher Premesh Chandran have both faced police questioning over Malaysiakini’s funding. At one point 15 policemen were sent to the website’s offices to investigate the writer of a letter that the government found objectionable.

The allegations of kickbacks have surrounded the sale of the submarines virtually since the transaction was completed in 2002. However, the case has been kept under wraps by a government apparently anxious to protect the man who engineered the transaction – then-Defense Minister Najib. The case involves the payment of €114 million in “commissions” to Perimekar Sdn. Bhd., a company wholly owned by Abdul Razak Baginda as well as additional payments to a Hong Kong-based company called Terasasi HK Ltd, which was wholly owned by Razak Baginda and his father.

Enmeshed inextricably in the case – and playing a major role in keeping it alive -- is the gruesome murder of 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 latter element of the deal, according to documents seized by the French police. According to a letter found in her Kuala Lumpur hotel room after her death, she was asking Razak Baginda for US$500,000. In the letter, she expressed regret for attempting to blackmail Razak Baginda. Razak Baginda, immediately after being cleared without having to put on a defense of complicity in the 28-year-old woman’s murder, fled to the UK, where he has remained ever since.