Malaysia Frees Altantuya's Murderers

Malaysia's Court of Appeal on Friday overturned an earlier conviction of two of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak's former bodyguards on a charge of murdering Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu in October 2006 in a ruling that was greeted with disbelief and outrage.

The court said the two former elite police offers would go free because Najib's chief of staff, Musa Safri, was never called to testify in a trial that was widely regarded as a cooked-up sham designed to protect Najib, then defense minister, from being interrogated or having to testify.

The prosecution can appeal the acquittal to the Federal Court, the nation's highest tribunal. The two were scheduled to be freed on Friday.

The judgment caused predictable anger and derision in Kuala Lumpur, with hundreds of Twitter responses condemning the verdict as a farce. Cynthia Gabriel, director of the human rights NGO Suaram, issued a statement that the "shocking verdict throws open the murder of Altantuya in 2006 and questions now abound as to who killed her. It also throws open the question on how she was killed. How were the C4 explosives (used to blow up her body) obtained? It's not like C4 can be obtained at 7-Eleven stores," she said.

The tangled case has transfixed Malaysian high society for nearly seven years, in major part because of the extraordinary efforts by the government and prosecutors to insulate Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, and others from the case. Those efforts included promising a now-dead private detective RM5 million to shut up and get out of the country after he had implicated Najib in the case.

Altantuya was murdered execution-style on Oct.19, 2006, leaving behind a note confessing that she was attempting to blackmail Abdul Razak Baginda, a security analyst and close friend of then Defense Minister Najib, for US$500,000. Although no reason was given for the blackmail attempt, it was thought to have been in connection with the US$1 billion purchase of submarines from a French-owned defense contractor in which Razak Baginda's wholly owned company, Perimekar Sdn Bhd, received a ?114 million commission that was characterized in a French investigation as a bribe to be steered to the United Malays National Organization.

Razak Baginda was initially charged along with the two bodyguards but in a highly unusual proceeding was freed without having to put on a defense despite having delivered a sworn statement that he had asked Najib's office to do something about Altantuya, his jilted girlfriend, who was harassing him. He immediately decamped for the UK and for several years wasn't seen in Malaysia.

The original court case against the two bodyguards was replete with numerous irregularities including the last-minute replacement of the trial judge and prosecution team before the trial began and what appeared to be clear attempts to keep evidence from being introduced in court, including an assertion by Altantuya?s cousin that she had seen pictures of Altantuya with Najib and Razak Baginda at dinner together. The woman also testified that all records of her entry to the country with Altantuya had disappeared from the immigration department. Her allegations were never followed up.

The decision by the three-member appeal court came despite the fact that Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar, one of the two, confessed to the murder in a sworn statement that inexplicably was never introduced in court. Sirul had even been read his rights prior to the confession. He was also not questioned by prosecutors in court about the events he described in the excluded confession. In that document, Sirul said he and Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri of the Special Action Unit, the other freed Friday, had been promised RM100,000 to kill the woman and two of her Mongolian companions. The Special Action United was under then-Defense Minister Najib.

When they tried to seek out the women in their hotel, Sirul said, CCTV cameras made it impractical to kill them there. Eventually, according to reports, they picked up Altantuya in front of Razak Baginda's house and took her to the clearing where she was killed There was no attempt at trial to determine who offered to pay for the murder.

From the time Azilah and Sirul were put on trial, the case had obvious political overtones because of speculation about who may have ordered the killing and also because she was pregnant at the time, perhaps with a high-ranking official's baby. After she was shot twice in the head in a jungled area near the city of Shah Alam, her body was blown up with plastic explosives, contributing to the theory that the murderers were attempting to destroy the fetus's DNA.

The decision to hear the appeal was delayed for more than two years, raising suspicions that the delay was ordered to keep the case from affecting the May 5, 2013 general election, in which Najib and the Barisan Nasional coalition managed to preserve a parliamentary majority despite losing the popular vote to the opposition Pakatan Rakyat led by Anwar Ibrahim.

Senior lawyer Karpal Singh, national chairman of the opposition Democratic Action Party, who held a watching brief for Altantuya's family during the original trial, said he would reactivate a suspended RM100 million civil suit over the woman's death and would try to call Najib and Musa Safri to the witness stand.

Altantuya's father, Setev Shaariibuu, an Ulan Batur psychologist, was contacted by News portal MalaysiaKini through a Mongolian lawyer but he refused to give a statement. He was quoted saying, "It is time the government of Mongolia make a statement about this."

Although Altantuya had once been Razak Baginda's girlfriend, the late private detective, Perumal Balasumbraniam, said he had been told by Razak Baginda that she had been Najib's girlfriend first but that he passed her on to Razak Baginda because Najib didn't want to be entangled in an affair when he was seeking the premiership. Razak Baginda's wife Mazalinda, on the first day of the trial in a Kuala Lumpur courtroom, screamed out that Razak Baginda "didn't want to be prime minister," which was taken as an acknowledgment of the prior relationship."

Najib has repeatedly claimed to have sworn on the Koran that he never met the woman, although a trail of evidence shows that Najib, Razak Baginda and Altantuya were in Europe at the same time in 2005 when Najib, as defense minister, was finalizing the training of Malaysian naval personnel to operate the country's scandal-plagued Scorpene submarines, bought from a subsidiary of the French defense giant DCN.

The judgment, read this morning by Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat, ruled there was serious misdirection by the High Court judge on the original trial, including not calling Najib's former aide de camp Musa Safri and the failure to take into consideration the police station's diary which stated that Azilah was at the Bukit Aman main police headquarters at the time Altantuya was killed.

In reading the judgment, Justice Tengku Maimun said the court did not find anywhere in the High Court's judgment that the alibi had been considered and that there were inconsistencies in the telephone call logs of the accused. "These include the police station's diary which states that Azilah was at Bukit Aman and not at the crime scene."

"It is our judgment the cumulative effect of the non-directions by the judged rendered the conviction unsafe. We unanimously allow both appeals. Conviction and sentence are set aside. The appellants are acquitted and discharged," concluded Tengku Maimun.

(With reporting by Malaysiakini)