Malaysia’s Najib Ducks a Court Appearance

A Malaysian High Court judge dismissed a bid Wednesday to call Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak as a witness in the marathon trial of one of his best friends and two of his bodyguards for the murder of Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu.

Najib‘s name has come up repeatedly outside the courtroom because of his closeness to Altantuya’s former lover, Abdul Razak Baginda, who faces a possible death penalty along with the two bodyguards. Judge Mohd Zaki Yasin also refused to call to the stand private investigator P. Balasubramaniam, who two weeks ago made an extraordinarily detailed written declaration that implicated Najib heavily in the events leading up to the gruesome October 2006 murder of the translator.

Altantuya was executed with two bullets to the head in a patch of jungle near a Kuala Lumpur suburb and her body was blown up with plastic explosives. The murder case has droned on for more than a year, raising suspicions that it is being delayed to lessen the impact of an eventual acquittal or a light sentence for the three. Accused along with Abdul Razak are Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri, 31, and Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar, 36, who were part of the Special Action Squad, an elite team of bodyguards directly under Najib’s control, until they were arrested for the murder.

Balasubramaniam, whom Abdul Razak hired to keep Altantuya away from him after he had jilted her, detailed conversations in a statutory declaration in which the well-connected political analyst allegedly told him he had in effect inherited Altantuya as a lover from Najib, who passed her on because he didn’t want to be harassed as deputy prime minister. Among other lurid details, Balasubramaniam described text messages between Najib and Abdul Razak in which the latter was asking for help to avoid arrest.

Besides allegations that Altantuya was the lover of both men, the case has raised additional concerns of corruption. The Mongolian woman was the translator on a controversial transaction in which Malaysia, with Najib as defense minister, paid €1 billion for French submarines, netting a company tied to Abdul Razak US$111 million in “commissions.”

In a vivid demonstration of the political implications of the case, which seems to have damaged Najib’s hopes to succeed Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as prime minister, the private detective was hustled to a police station, where he recanted the declaration outside the presence of his lawyer and said it was coerced. He has since hurriedly left the country. Karpal Singh, a Kuala Lumpur lawyer who is representing Altantuya’s family in the courtroom, expressed his disappointment with the judge’s ruling and said he was considering referring it to the Court of Appeal.

Raja Petra Kamaruddin, one of Malaysia’s most prominent Internet journalists, also accused Najib and his wife, Rosmah, of complicity in the murder in a June article. He was arrested for sedition, and was charged last week by the Attorney General-Chambers with criminal libel. Legal sources in Malaysia have questioned why the criminal libel charge, a government offense, was filed rather than a civil action by either Najib or Rosmah.

"The main issue here is who lodged the police report against him (Raja Petra). The injured party should lodge the report. Rosmah didn't make the report. It's for the individual to act," said Sivarasa Rasiah, a prominent human rights and public administration lawyer and Parti Keadilan Rakyat federal lawmaker. Sivarasa pointed out that Rosmah has no official government position and is "just the wife of a politician," he said, which hardly warrants state interference.

Wee Choo Keong, a veteran lawyer and also a Keadilan federal lawmaker, said that the use of Section 500 of the Penal Code on criminal defamation is very rare.

"By rights, Rosmah should sue RPK (Raja Petra),” Wee said. “Why should the authorities be involved?" He added that criminal charges usually require "ill intent" towards the person who lodged the report. The Attoney General- Chambers’ Head of Prosecution Mohd Yusof Zainal Abiden did not answer repeated attempts by Asia Sentinel to contact him.

Rosmah, who is two years older than Najib, has denied the allegations in Raja Petra’s statutory declaration but reportedly said she would not sue. Asked why not, she told local media on July 1: "If you are innocent, what is there for you to address? I am not a politician and I am not running for any post. I’m just the wife of a politician."

If Najib or his wife had filed the charges, under the law they would be subject to motions for discovery and cross-examination, which presumably would not happen if the state instead filed the charges. More than once the filing of defamation charges has bounced back on the plaintiff because of that reason.

In his original report, Raja Petra also named Lt Col Aziz Buyong, and the colonel's wife, Lt Col Norhayati Hassan, Rosmah’s personal attaché, as participating in the murder. Aziz and Norhayati filed a defamation suit against Raja Petra Wednesday, seeking RM1 million in damages each, exemplary damages and other costs. They also sought an injunction to restrain Raja Petra from repeating the alleged defamatory remarks.

Raja Petra responded to the new charges in his Internet publication, Malaysia Today, writing that “This time I am prepared to go to jail for a long, long time just to make sure that Najib is not going to become Prime Minister of Malaysia in June 2010. Yes, I know I am headed for a fall, but I am going to bring Najib down with me. We shall both hit the dirt and become history, side-by-side.”

By this time, Malaysians have also probably learned more than they ever needed to know about sodomy. Balasubramaniam in his statutory declaration wrote that Abdul Razak told him Altantuya liked anal sex. In his latest denunciation of the libel and sedition charges against him, Raja Petra also wrote that he had videotaped a conversation with a friend of Saiful Bukhari Azlan, a 23-year-old male political volunteer who allegedly was raped by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

Although Najib initially denied ever having met Saiful, he amended his statement to say he had met him only briefly to give him “career counseling.” Raja Petra contended that the friend had accompanied Saiful to a meeting with Najib before charges against Anwar were made public, implying that the new charges against Anwar had been trumped up. The also implied that he has access to a military intelligence report describing Najib’s sexual liaison with Altantuya, and that he would make it public when and if he goes on trial.

The unfolding events and sensational allegations take place against the backdrop of increasing political tension in the country, with the opposition coalition pushing hard against the ruling Barisan Nasional, which lost its 50-year stranglehold on power in March 8 national elections. Anwar indicated Wednesday that he had induced United Malays National Organisation members from Pahang – Najib’s home state – to switch their allegiance to the opposition.