Malaysian Deputy Premier Denies Murder Links

In a blistering defense of his boss’s innocence, Najib Tun Razak’s press secretary Tuesday issued a statement that neither the Malaysian deputy prime minister nor his wife, Rosmah Mansor, had anything to do with the October 2006 murder of Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu.

In the statement, made to the Malaysian internet publication Malaysia Today, the press secretary, Sariffuddin Tengku Ahmad, threatened legal action if allegations in the press and elsewhere of Najib’s involvement in the case continued. The statement also denied that Najib had anything to do with erasing the victim’s immigration records, or that he had ever met her. Many questions were left unanswered, however.

Although Najib, whom many see as the heir apparent to the prime minister’s post, has neither been questioned nor asked to appear in the marathon trial of his friend, Abdul Razak Baginda, and two of his bodyguards for the murder of Altantuya, his reputation has been considerably tarnished by allegations of his apparent links to the accused. Some media have questioned his suitability to take over as prime minister when Abdullah Ahmad Badawi gives up the post.

Abdul Razak, 46, who had been Altantuya’s lover, is charged with abetting the slaying, which prosecutors say was carried out by Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri, 30, and Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar, 35, both of whom were assigned to Najib’s elite police bodyguard detail. The 28-year-old woman was shot on October 20, 2006, and her body was blown up with explosives said to be available only to the military. Altantuya was last seen in front of Abdul Razak’s house, being pushed into a car and driven away.

The trial of the three, originally scheduled to last just 26 days, has been droning on since June 2007 and has raised suspicions that it is being deliberately delayed to cushion public opinion for an eventual mistrial or exoneration because of the political influence of those involved. So far, 75 witnesses have been called, but the trial has been in recess for several weeks for reasons that are unclear. Altantuya’s father, Mongolian psychology professor Shaariibuu Setev, returned to Malaysia last week to demand justice for his daughter. He managed to attend the opening of the Dewan Rakyat, Malaysia's parliament, on Tusday, where he spoke briefly to the prime minister, who only offered him a cursory greeting* Najib was also in parliament but Setev failed to speak with him.

The statement by Najib’s aide hardly settles matters. For instance, he describes as “hearsay” allegations that the immigration records of Altantuya, her cousin, Burmaa Oyunchinmeg and Namiraa Gerelmaa, a third Mongolian woman, had been erased after the three came to Kuala Lumpur from Mongolia to confront Altantuya’s former lover and to demand money from him. The victim had claimed that Abdul Razak fathered a child with her.

Burmaa Oyunchinmeg told the court in June 2007 that the records had been erased but no attempt was made by either defense or prosecution lawyers to find out how or why the records disappeared. Burmaa also said she had seen a picture of Altantuya at a dinner with Najib and Abdul Razak, but lawyers for both the prosecution and the defense immediately protested and no attempt was made to find out where she had seen the picture or if indeed the picture existed. It has not yet surfaced.

Najib’s aide also described it as “strange” that “no legal attempt had been made to produce this picture as evidence in court to date by (the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat) as it appears it is only admissible in the public opinion court.”

Sariffuddin, the spokesman for Najib, also described as “baseless” public allegations that the murder of the translator was linked to Malaysia’s 2005 purchase of French submarines. Altantuya is known to have accompanied Abdul Razak to Paris at a time when Malaysia’s defense ministry – with Najib as defense minister ‑ was in Paris negotiating through a Kuala Lumpur-based company connected to Abdul Razak to buy the submarines.

Najib, Abdul Razak and Altantuya were in Europe at exactly the same time. Najib visited a naval base where Malaysian navy submariners were training, and, according to the log of an Australian submariner association, presented jackets made available by Abdul Razak’s company to the crew.

Najib could easily clear up all the allegations and suspicions, observers say, by appearing in court under oath with his diaries, telephone logs and other data to prove his contention that he never met the victim.

Similarly, the public in Malaysia has been awash in reports that female Police Lance Corporal Rophaniza Roslan, 29, who accompanied the accused, Azilah Hadri and Sirul Azhar Umar, to Abdul Razak’s house, where they are alleged to have bundled the translator into a car to take her to her death, was the bodyguard of Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor. The lance corporal was held by police after the murder but was released. The prosecution attempted to impeach her as a witness during the trial. But despite the widespread rumors over her connection to Najib’s wife, neither the prosecution nor the defense raised the issue in court. Lawyers have not asked for details of her employment.

If Najib were to appear in court, he could certainly explain how it was possible for Abdul Razak to use his bodyguards to remove the victim from his residence. A deputy police commander, who is an associate of the two bodyguards, testified that members of the bodyguard unit are required to follow the orders of their superiors without question; he described the bodyguard members as being “like robots” who only respond to orders from superior officers. Abdul Razak, a civilian and a mere friend Najib’s, was not a superior officer in any sense.

Najib could also be called upon, as defense minister, to explain how the two bodyguards were able to get their hands on the explosives to blow up the translator’s body.

Najib, according to Tuesday’s statement, “has been very restrained and guarded in making any public statement on the matter since people known to him have been implicated and have been charged in court. It could be misinterpreted or seen as interfering in the case since the court proceedings is ongoing.”

The statement concludes that the Deputy Prime Minister “also shared this sentiment (that the case is not about politics and should not be dealt with as such) and should seek out the truth, and justice should be served.”

With the case still unfolding, however slowly, the next step, for many observers, would be for Najib to appear in court. That might do more to obtain justice than issuing a public relations denial.

*The prime minister was misquoted as saying justice would be done in an earlier version of this story.