Malaysia’s Missing Witness
|Our Correspondent||Jun 28, 2007|
After nearly two weeks of sensational testimony, a Malaysian court has yet to hear from the powerful man who appears to be linked to almost everyone in the case of the murdered Mongolian beauty Altantuya Shaariibuu.
With well-connected political-analyst Abdul Razak Baginda on trial for his life in the slaying of his jilted girlfriend, petite, jet-setting part-time translator Altantuya, the court has heard enough lurid tales of love gone wrong to keep tabloid editors busy for weeks. But something is missing.
One major figure who appears to be integrally involved with all of the case’s participants has never been questioned or asked to testify as a witness in the case: Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak.
The son of the country’s second prime minister, Najib is a friend of Abdul Razak Baginda’s. The two policemen charged with carrying out the killing are part of an elite force close to Najib’s office. A third suspect, who may be a Najib family bodyguard, has been left out of the case, while the slain woman’s father has repeatedly said his daughter was privy to details of official corruption .
Abdul Razak’s lover, the Russian-educated Altantuya, who spoke Russian, Chinese, Japanese and English, was 28 years old when she was killed on October 19 last year. Her body was abandoned in a patch of jungle near the suburban town of Shah Alam and blown apart with hand grenades, according to police. The prosecutor, Tun Abdul Majib, said evidence would be introduced to show that the deceased's cause of death was "probable blast-related injuries.” Other reports said she had been shot twice in the head before being dumped.
Thursday, Altantuiya's cousin, Burmaa Oyunchimeg, read a hand-written letter in court that is believed to have been Altantuya's final note, saying she was afraid Abdul Razak was trying to kill her. Writing in broken English, she said that Abdiul Razak "is powerfull person, he have money, he have connection in police, in government. He trying to scare me, trying to kill me."
At the time of Altantuya's death, Abdul Razak was head of the Malaysian Strategic Research Center and a close advisor to Najib. He was arrested as a suspect in the murder, along with Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri and Constable Sirul Azhar Umar. The two have usually been identified in local newspapers as members of an elite police unit, the Bukit Aman Special Action Force, under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Security, which is headed by the Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
In fact, however, Azilah was head of Najib’s personal security team. In an affidavit filed in December in his defense, Abdul Razak said he had contacted Azilah through Musa Safri, Najib’s aide-de-camp, to ask for help in dealing with Altantuya, who by that time was demanding money to care for a baby she said Abdul Razak had fathered.
Another mysterious figure in the case was a woman constable who was mentioned in earlier news reports as “helping police in the investigation into the murder.” She was described as a lance corporal, in her mid-20s, from the Petaling Jaya District Police Headquarters who had been in remand. News reports aid the woman helped to put Altantuya into the red Proton Saga car that drove her away for the last time.
The rumor mill has it that the policewoman is a bodyguard for Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, although she was never named. The police woman dropped completely out of the case, however, and was never arrested or identified; the local papers have stopped mentioning her. The private investigator hired by Razak, P. Balasubramaniam, testified that that a man and a woman were with Azilah when Azilah drove Altantuya away. However, he said he could not recognize the two other individuals.
Najib has been asked at press conferences repeatedly about allegations of his involvement in the crime, which also has been the subject of vocal charges by Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister and current leader of the opposition reform party, Keadilan Rakyat Malaysia (People’s Justice Party). Najib has just as repeatedly denied any involvement.
Other questions have arisen over the politically touchy trial. The case was brought forward by nearly a year, from an original date of April 2008, leading to conjecture that authorities wanted to get it out of the way before elections, which are expected to be called sometime next year.
Also, the prosecution team was abruptly changed the night before the trial was to begin, leading new prosecutors to plead for more time to get their case together. Officials said the prosecution team was changed because the original prosecutor was seen playing badminton with the judge although critics have repeatedly said virtually every lawyer in Kuala Lumpur plays badminton with virtually every judge.
In Malaysia, the trial is regarded as yet another test of the country’s judicial system and is being closely watched for signs of political influence. (Reformers were jolted this week, meanwhile. when Eric Chia, a longtime crony of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, was freed on embezzlement charges.)
Abdul Razak, who is married and has a teenage daughter, acknowledged in his affidavit that he had met Altantuya at a gala party in Hong Kong in 2004 and began a whirlwind affair that included trips to Europe, expensive gifts and cash payments of US$10,000 at a time. The two became so close, according to testimony by Ang Chong Beng, a private investigator hired by the dead woman, that Altantuya said she had married Abdul Razak in Hong Kong.
But Abdul Razak reportedly tired of the slender, multi-lingual beauty in 2005, although he continued to give her money. The payments stopped in 2006, prompting the woman to travel to Malaysia at least twice to demand US$500,000 from him. Ang, who began testifying Monday, said he was hired by Altantuya last September to find out whether Abdul Razak was still in the country.
Ang said Altantuya had told him, “If Razak does not pay her, she would reveal everything (about her relationship with Razak) to his wife, his daughter Rowena, TV3, reporters and to the rest of the world.”
Altantuya visited Abdul Razak’s office several times in the company of two Mongolian friends in an effort to force the political analyst to pay up. Contradicting earlier testimony that Abdul Razak had never mentioned harming Altantuya, one of the murdered woman’s friends testified that they were repeatedly threatened with death. Uuriintuya Gal-Ochir said neither she nor Altantuya lodged a police report because they were afraid of Abdul Razak’s connections to police officers. A private investigator hired by Abdul Razak, P. Balasubramaniam and his assistant, K. Suras Kumar, harassed them six or seven times after their arrival in Malaysia on Oct 8 last year, the woman said.
Suras, she said, had threatened to throw her, Altantuya and another friend, Namiraa Gerelma, out of a hotel room window. In previous testimony, Balasubramaniam said Suras had had an affair with one of the women and had been fired. Uuriintuya, however, said the three were so frightened that they remained standing in their hotel room when Suras was let in by Altantuya.
In another development, Uuriintuya testified that she remained in Malaysia after the murder, although Namiraa returned home to Mongolia. When Uuriintuya attempted to leave later, she said her entry had been expunged from Malaysian immigration computers. Uuriintuya testified that Namiraa returned home without a problem, but when she tried to leave with Altantuya's father on Nov 24 more than a month after the murder there was no record of their entering the country.
“Our entry was deleted in the immigration computer,” she testified. The woman banged the witness stand and added: “There is no record of me coming to Malaysia through Beijing. Why?”
Altantuya’s father, Stev Shariibuu, a Mongolian academician, has held numerous press conferences in Kuala Lumpur, repeatedly denying that his daughter was a part-time model, as she had been portrayed in the press, but instead was an accomplished translator who had accompanied Abdul Razak on several business trips. He claimed to reporters that she was killed because she “knew too much” about deals involving Abdul Razak, particularly one involving the purchase of submarines for the Malaysian government through a company in which Abdul Razak holds a significant interest. The 2002 purchase is reported to have netted Abdul Razak a healthy commission from the Malaysian government.
That has been denied by Malaysian government officials.
Court testimony over the two weeks has portrayed Altantuya as a woman carrying on a loud and angry public campaign against the lover who had jilted her. At one point, Balasubramaniam testified, Razak Baginda was so frightened of her that he hired him to keep her away and to protect his daughter as she went to and from school. Balasubramaniam testified that Altantuya showed up at Abdul Razak’s home, screaming “Razak, bastard! You come out. I want to speak to you.”
An obviously rattled Abdul Razak sent scores of telephone calls and text messages to Balasubramaniam that night, pleading for help. Shortly after that, according to testimony, the police officials appeared and put Altantuya into the back of the car. She was never seen alive again.
But was it a simple case of jealous scorn? Najib might be able to shed some light on the matter. But it seems the court has no stomach for calling him to the stand.