Malaysian Trial Drones Into Oblivion

In what has become a dismal pattern of trial by delay, the politically charged proceedings in a Malaysian court involving three defendants accused of murdering the young Mongolian woman Altantuya Shaariibuu were adjourned early last week, this time so the defense could seek out a telecommunications expert for advice.

What seemed at the time to be a case that could expose sex, lies and intrigue at the very heart of the Malaysian system seems fated to disappear and eventually be forgotten. The woman, a beautiful freelance translator, was allegedly murdered at the instigation of her lover, Abdul Razak Baginda, a well-connected political analyst tied to the very top of Malaysia's power structure. He is on trial along with two bodyguards from an elite police unit controlled by his close friend, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak. But for all that, there seems little inclination on the part of Malaysia’s mainstream media to cover the case extensively as it gravitates further into the back pages on procedural delays. The two biggest newspapers, the New Straits Times and the Malaysia Star are controlled by the United Malays National Organisation and the Malaysian Chinese Association, respectively the two leading ethnic parties in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.

At least 62 witnesses have testified since the trial began its stuttering course nearly seven months ago, deepening suspicions that the case is being deliberately delayed to drive it from public view. Certainly, it appears nowhere near completion. A total of 132 potential witnesses were notified that they might have to testify.

Because of the explosive nature of the trial and allegations of connections to the deputy prime minister, it is being treated gingerly by the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, which doesn’t seem to want the verdict in a politically embarrassing murder trial to occur any time close to elections that may be called early this year.

The woman’s remains were found in November 2006 in a patch of jungle near the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Shah Alam. Police said she was shot in the head and her body blown up with explosives available only to armed forces personnel. On trial are Baginda, 46, once the influential head of a political think-tank and a close confidant of Najib Tun Razak; Azilah Hadri, 31 and Sirul Azhar Umar, 36, both of whom were Najib’s bodyguards. Despite the closeness of Najib to all three defendants, he has neither been summoned for questioning nor named as a witness.

While Altantuya’s death was first characterized as a tale of love gone wrong, suspicions have grown that she may have had knowledge of a much bigger controversy, involving the purchase of French submarines for the Malaysian defense ministry through a company connected to Razak Baginda, who was in France with Altantuya dealing with the submarine purchase, which netted his company a greater than 10 percent commission, at the same time Najib was there. Nowhere in court has her role as a translator in the case been explored.

Just prior to her death, Altantuya had flown to Malaysia to confront Razak Baginda and demand as much as US$500,000 from him after he had jilted her following a whirlwind romance in Hong Kong, Paris and other cities. She claimed to have a son by him and he had already given her tens of thousands of US dollars during the course of the affair, but in a letter she left behind after her death, she expressed remorse for having attempted to blackmail him. At one point, when Altantuya’s cousin asserted in court that she had seen photos of the dead woman with Najib, both prosecution and defense attorneys leapt to their feet in remarkable unity, asking that the testimony be stricken.

In a sworn statement, Razak Baginda acknowledged after his arrest that he was having an affair with the victim and had given her money. He also admitted contacting the two bodyguards through an official in Najib’s office about her and one of the two, he said, telephoned him to say he could sleep well without worrying about her. Later, according to testimony by Altantuya’s cousin, records of the entry to Malaysia by both women somehow disappeared from the Immigration Ministry. No attempt has been made during the trial to find out how that happened or why.

A series of prosecutorial setbacks and allegations of political influence over the course of the trial also have endangered the case. Defendant Sirul’s purported confession was thrown out by Judge Mohd Zaki Mohd Yasin because the admissions, made during a flight from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur in November 2006, were made “involuntarily.” Although Altantuya’s bloody shoes were found in Sirul’s car and blood tests indicated they were hers, other physical evidence has been disallowed, making it difficult to connect any of the three directly to her death.

The prosecution also has attempted to impeach the testimony of two of its own star witnesses, one of whom ‑ Rohaniza Roslan, a 28-year-old policewoman, witnessed Altantuya’s abduction. In an earlier statement Rohaniza said she had accompanied Azilah Hadri, then her boyfriend, to Razak Baginda’s home, where the translator was last seen alive. She said she had seen the victim bundled into a red Proton car and taken away. Later, in court, she said she had been “tortured and coaxed” by police interrogators into signing that statement and offered a version of events that differed considerably from her statement.

In another questionable move Zulkifli Noordin, who abruptly quit early on as Azilah’s defense attorney, told an opposition political party newspaper that he quit because of attempts to interfere with the defense he had proposed, in particular to protect a third party whom Zulkifli refused to name.