Malaysia Media Circus over Murder Case

As many expected, a Kuala Lumpur-based “telephone press conference” didn’t come off with convicted murderer Sirul Azhar Umar, who is sitting in an Australian detention center and has hinted to the independent news portal Malaysiakini at the identities of higher-ups who allegedly said they would pay him to kill the Mongolian beauty Altantuya Shaariibuu in 2006.

In what is rapidly becoming a media circus, officials of the fundamentalist opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia [PAS] made 15 calls, as a horde of reporters looked on, to Sirl’s phone in the Villawood high-detention facility but got only his voicemail. A second attempt later got through to the former elite police commando, who was convicted last December in Federal Court along with another police official, Azilah Hadri, of the murder of the 28-year-old expectant mother and translator but he refused to talk. Sirul fled to Australia last year after he and Azilah were temporarily freed by an appellate court on the murder charge. Azilah, however, stayed in Malaysia and is now in custody.

The story of the death of Altantuya has evolved into arguably one of the biggest scandals in Malaysian history, involving not only murder and adultery but massive bribery in the purchase of weapons by the Defense Ministry when Najib Tun Razak was deputy prime minister and defense minister. Seven years of trials in the high court, appellate court and Federal Court have all appeared designed to hide the motive and identity of whoever had hired the two to kill the woman.

Now it has evolved again, with PAS, which is bidding for primacy in the three-party opposition coalition with the vacuum left by the January jailing for sodomy of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, seeking to seize the reins in the case, first via the attempt to engineer the teleconference with a horde of reporters present.

PAS information chief Mahfuz Omar, having failed to reach Sirul today (Feb. 23), said he would fly the former police commando’s mother to Sydney to meet with him. In a later telephone conversation today, Sirul told PAS saying he was refusing to talk because the Australian government had given him protection, “providing me with a safe and comfortable lodging.”

Malaysian police and other officials immediately wheeled out the heavy artillery to discredit Sirul’s statements in the wake of the Malaysiakini revelations, published on Feb. 17. It is clear that police and the judiciary have no intention to reopen an investigation into Sirul’s charges that unnamed people in high positions ordered the killing. The Inspector-General of Police, Khalid Abu Bakar, said Sirul had plenty of chances to tell his story during the seven years of trials that eventually ended in his sentencing to hang and questioned why he didn’t. Other officials have cast similar doubts on his allegations.

Najib himself has hit out at the revelations, denouncing as “rubbish” that Sirul had been hired by “important people” to kill the woman. "It's total rubbish. Total rubbish," Najib said in brief remarks to reporters.

During the seven years of trials, however, neither prosecutors, defense lawyers nor judges ever asked the defendants to name any parties behind the offers to pay the two, leading to suspicions, especially given the length of the judicial process, that they had been told to shut up and would eventually be let off.

Malaysia has issued a request to extradite Sirul from Australia, but Canberra has refused to do so, saying its policy is not to send fugitives back to countries that practice the death penalty. One of the main questions is why the Australian authorities, with a suspect in high-security detention, would allow what has turned into an enormous media spectacle in both Australia and Malaysia, with television stations bidding with each other to interview him. Lawyers have said Sirul is jeopardizing his chances of filing for asylum by speaking to the press.

The two convicted murderers were serving as bodyguards for Najib when the 28-year-old beauty, a fixture on the international party circuit, was shot twice in the head and her body was blown up with military explosives. Sirul told Malaysiakini he was acting under orders when he and Azilah killed the woman, and that he was “seriously considering the possibility” of telling who issued the orders.

In a confession that was never introduced in court, Sirul said in 2006 that he and Azilah had been offered RM50,000 to RM100,000 to kill the woman, who was in Kuala Lumpur to demand a bribe of US$500,000 from her jilted lover, then-security analyst Abdul Razak Baginda, one of Najib’s best friends and a partner in a scheme said by French investigators that was designed to harvest €114 million in bribes on the purchase of submarines from the French munitions maker DCN. The bribes were to be funneled to the United Malays National Organization.

(Read Sirul Azhar's statement here.)

In his conversation with Malaysiakini, Sirl said he didn’t know either the murder victim or Razak Baginda. Najib’s then-aide de camp, Musa Safri, who directed the two to pick up Altantuya in front of Razak Baginda’s house, was never called to answer questions by law enforcement officials or prosecutors.

"I was under orders. The important people with motive (to murder Altantuya) are still free," Sirul told the news portal.

The two have long been suspected of having been hired to kill Altantuya to get rid of her because of what she knew about the submarine deal. She played a minor role as a translator at the later stages of the purchase. A now-dead private investigator said she had an affair with Najib himself prior to being passed to Razak Baginda because Najib didn’t want the complications of a glamorous lover when he expected to become prime minister. Najib, who was then deputy prime minister, swore in the Quran that he had nothing to do with the matter.

A considerable body of hearsay ties Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, to the case, however. After the private detective, Perumal Balasubramaniam, issued a sworn declaration saying Razak Baginda had told him of Najib’s involvement with the woman, Balasubramaniam was hustled to a police station and dragooned out of the country. Deepak Jaikishan, a businesswoman who worked with Rosmah but fell out with her, in a sworn declaration connected Najib, Najib’s brother Nazim and Rosmah to the decision to put Balasubramaniam on a plane out of Malaysia for Chennai with several hundred thousand ringgit in hush money in his pockets. Balasubramaniam returned to Malaysia after a period in Chennai to retell his story but he died of a heart attack later.