Malaysian Mongolian Murder Figure gets a new trial date

In a highly unusual development that stunned legal observers, a Malaysian judge has abruptly ordered the potentially explosive murder trial of an influential political figure moved up by a full year and transferred to another court. The Shah Alam High Court is scheduled to hear the month-long case starting June 4.

Abdul Razak Baginda, the head of a Kuala Lumpur-based political think tank with close ties to leaders of the United Malays National Organization, is accused of participating in the murder of a Mongolian beauty badgering him to take care of her baby. He goes into a suburban high court Friday for a new trial date. Abdul Razak, who is in jail, was to have gone on trial in March 2008.

The case has been transferred from Judge K N Segara to Judicial Commissioner Mohd Zaki Md Yassin, one of several new judges in the Shah Alam court. Senior lawyers and human rights activists in Kuala Lumpur say it is unusual for a new judge to take it upon himself to hear the case, raising suspicions, they say, that the case might be going to a sympathetic jurist. Others insist the speed-up is in response to public clamor for the trial to begin.

Abdul Razak, 46, who is married, admitted to investigators in October that he had been having an affair with Altantuya Shaariibuu, 28, a glamorous free-lance Mongolian translator, from the end of 2004 into the middle of 2005 in several countries ‑ Hong Kong, China, Singapore, France and Malaysia – and gave the woman US$10,000 on three occasions.

Shaariibuu was shot twice and killed in October, her body torn apart with hand grenades available only to Malaysia’s security forces, and left in a patch of jungle outside the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Shah Alam. Abdul Razak is accused of ordering the slaying, which was allegedly committed by police Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri, 30, and Corporal Sirul, Azhar Umar, both of whom belonged to the elite Special Action Unit whose duties primarily involve acting as bodyguards for top political figures and dignitaries.

There was no official explanation of the change in date and lawyers were puzzled. It is "entirely strange" to have a new judge preside over the case, attorney Kamarul Hisham Kamaruddin, told the New Straits Times.

"I am not aware why this was done but I will definitely ask for the reason when the case comes up for mention tomorrow," said Kamarul, who is representing Corporal Sirul.

Among other UMNO leaders, Abdul Razak is closely tied to Deputy Prime Minister and UMNO Deputy President Najib Abdul Razak, who oversees the elite unit. The case is being watched closely by Malaysians both because of Shaariibuu’s gruesome death and because of Abdul Razak’s political connections. Anwar Ibraham, the former deputy prime minister now spearheading an opposition political party, has repeatedly asked why Najib has not been questioned about how Abdul Razak was able to make contact with two policemen who worked for Najib, who is also the defense minister.

Both criminal and civil cases can take years to be decided in Malaysia’s overburdened courts. Abdul Razak was first ordered to trial before Segara, who said at the time that his backlog stood at 135 cases stretching back to 1999 and that Abdul Razak would have to stand his turn. The switch to a new judge means that the case can be heard much more quickly.

Some 13,000 defendants remain in Malaysian jails awaiting trial, not least because of a chronic shortage of judges. According to a 2006 study of the court system by the European Union-Malaysia Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Malaysia's judiciary suffers from low conviction rates, a huge backlog, lengthy delays in charging offenders, inadequate sentencing on the criminal side and high costs and lengthy delays in civil cases.

According to an affidavit filed in court in January, Abdul Razak stopped giving money to Shaaribuu in 2005 and filed a police report on October 23, 2006 accusing her of harassment. Abdul Razak met Shaaribuu, whom he called Aminah, in 2004, the affidavit said, and was told that she was a student looking for “side income.” Shaaribuu allegedly told Abdul Razak she had financial problems owing to her mother's bout with cancer and he agreed to help her.

The victim was divorced in 1998 after a two-year marriage to a popular Mongolian rock singer and was said to have been a minor celebrity in Ulan Bator, according to press reports.

“In a desperate situation, Abdul Razak succumbed to the woman’s threats and gave her the money,” Wong told the court, adding that the payments lasted for three years.

Meanwhile, other press reports said that Abdul Razak’s witness statement claimed he was "not so stupid" as to kill the woman when he could have complained to the police and had her deported.

Shaaribuu came to Kuala Lumpur to look for Abdul Razak on October 6. She had claimed that he was father of her son.

On Oct 19, Abdul Razak said in the statement, he was told by a private investigator that Shaaribuu had gone to his house but nobody was at home.

Following this, he said he called Inspector Azilah Hadri for help but told him not to hurt the woman. Later that night Azilah called Abdul Razak and told him, "tonight encik (sir), you can sleep well," the affidavit said.