A potentially explosive scandal in Malaysia over the billion-dollar purchase of French submarines, a deal engineered by then-Defense Minister Najib Tun Razak, has broken out of the domestic arena with the filing of a request to investigate bribery and kickbacks from the deal in a Paris court.
Although the case has been contained for eight years in the cozy confines of Malaysia's courts and parliament, which are dominated by the ruling National Coalition, French lawyers William Bourdon, Renaud Semerdjian and Joseph Breham put an end to that when they filed it with Parisian prosecutors on behalf of the Malaysian human rights organization Suaram, which supports good-government causes.
Judges in the Paris Prosecution Office have been probing a wide range of corruption charges involving similar submarine sales and the possibility of bribery and kickbacks to top officials in France, Pakistan and other countries. The Malaysian piece of the puzzle was added in two filings, on Dec. 4, 2009 and Feb. 23 this year.
For two years, Parisian prosecutors, led by investigating judges Francoise Besset and Jean-Christophe Hullin, have been gingerly investigating allegations involving senior French political figures and the sales of submarines and other weaponry to governments all over the world. French news reports have said the prosecutors have backed away from some of the most serious charges out of concern for the political fallout.
The allegations relate to one of France's biggest defense conglomerates, the state-owned shipbuilder DCN, which merged with the French electronics company Thales in 2005 to become a dominant force in the European defense industry. DCN's subsidiary Armaris is the manufacturer of Scorpene-class diesel submarines sold to India, Pakistan and Malaysia among other countries. All of the contracts, according to the lawyers acting for Suaram, a Malaysian human rights NGO, are said to be suspect.
With Najib having moved on from the defense portfolio he held when the deal was put together in 2002 to become prime minister and head of the country's largest political party, the mess has the potential to become a major liability for the government and the United Malays National Organisation. Given the power of UMNO, it is unlikely the scandal would ever get any airing in a Malaysian court, which is presumably why Suaram reached out to French prosecutors.
"The filings are very recent and have so far prompted a preliminary police inquiry on the financial aspects of the deal," said a Paris-based source familiar with France's defense establishment. "There isn't a formal investigation yet. The investigation will most likely use documents seized at DCN in the course of another investigation, focusing on bribes paid by DCN in Pakistan."
The source said police have confined their inquiry to bribery allegations so far and have not looked into the 2006 murder of a Mongolian woman in Malaysia who was a translator on the deal for Najib and his friend, Abdul Razak Baginda, during a visit to Paris.
There have been numerous deaths involving DCN defense sales in Taiwan and Pakistan. Prosecutors are suspicious that 11 French submarine engineers who were murdered in a 2002 bomb blast in Karachi – first thought to have been the work of Al Qaeda – were actually killed in retaliation for the fact that the French had reneged on millions of dollars in kickbacks to Pakistani military officers.
The Malaysian allegations revolve around the payment of €114 million to a Malaysia-based company called Perimekar, for support services surrounding the sale of the submarines. Perimekar was wholly owned by another company, KS Ombak Laut Sdn Bhd, which in turn was controlled by Najib's best friend, Razak Baginda, whose wife Mazalinda, a lawyer and former magistrate, was the principal shareholder, according to the French lawyers.
"Over the past years, serious cases have been investigated in France by judges involving DCN," lawyer Renaud Semerdjian told Asia Sentinel in a telephone interview. "This is not the first case of this kind that is being investigated. There are others in Pakistan and there are some issues about India. To a certain extent, every time weapons of any kind have been provided, suspicion of violation of the law may be very high."
As defense minister from 2000 to 2008, Najib commissioned a huge military buildup to upgrade Malaysia's armed forces, including two submarines from Armaris and the lease of a third, a retired French Navy Agosta-class boat. There were also Sukhoi supersonic fighter jets from Russia and millions of dollars spent on coastal patrol boats. All have come under suspicion by opposition leaders in Malaysia's parliament but UMNO has stifled any investigation. Asked personally about the cases, Najib has responded angrily and refused to reply.
Despite efforts to bury it, the case achieved considerably notoriety after the murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a 28-year-old Mongolian translator and Razak Baginda's jilted lover, who participated in negotiations over the purchase of the submarines. By her own admission in a letter found after her death, she was attempting to blackmail Razak Baginda for US$500,000.
She was shot in October 2006 and her body was blown up with military explosives by two bodyguards attached to Najib's office after Razak Baginda went to Najib's chief of staff, Musa Safri, for help in keeping her away from him. Not long after being acquitted in November 2008 under questionable circumstances of participating in her murder, Razak Baginda left the country for England. The bodyguards were convicted but no motive was ever established for their actions despite a confession by one which was not allowed in court, but which said they would be paid a large sum of money to get rid of her.
The submarine deal was never brought up in court during a months-long murder trial that was marked by prosecutors, defense attorneys and the judge working studiously to keep Najib's name out of the proceedings. A private detective hired by Razak Baginda to protect him from the furious Altantuya filed a statutory declaration after the trial indicating that Najib had actually been the victim's lover and had passed her on to Razak Baginda.
The detective, P. Balasubramaniam, said later that he was unceremoniously run out of Kuala Lumpur. He eventually emerged from hiding in India to say he had been offered RM5 million (US$1.57 million) by a businessman close to Najib's wife to shut up and get out of town. He also said he had met Nazim Razak, Najib's younger brother, and was told to recant his testimony.
In the current complaint in Paris, the issue revolves around what, if anything, Razak Baginda's Perimekar company did to deserve €114 million. Zainal Abidin, the deputy defense minister at the time of the sale, told parliament that Perimekar had received the amount – 11 percent of the sale price of the submarines – for "coordination and support services." The Paris filing alleges that there were neither support nor services.
Perimekar was registered in 2001, a few months before the signing of the contracts for the sale, the Paris complaint states. The company, it said flatly, "did not have the financial resources to complete the contract." A review of the accounts in 2001 and 2002, the complaint said, "makes it an obvious fact that this corporation had absolutely no capacity, or legal means or financial ability and/or expertise to support such a contract."
"None of the directors and shareholders of Perimekar have the slightest experience in the construction, maintenance or submarine logistics," the complaint adds. "Under the terms of the contract, €114 million were related to the different stages of construction of the submarines." The apparent consideration, supposedly on the part of Perimekar, "would be per diem and Malaysian crews and accommodation costs during their training. There is therefore no link between billing steps and stages of completion of the consideration."
As Asia Sentinel reported on April 1, services for the subs are being performed by a well-connected firm called Boustead DCNS, a joint venture between BHIC Defence Technologies Sdn Bhd, a subsidiary of publicly-listed Boustead Heavy Industries Corp Bhd, and DCNS SA, a subsidiary of DCN. Boustead's Heavy Industries Division now includes Perimekar as an "associate of the Group. PSB is involved in the marketing, upgrading, maintenance and related services for the Malaysian maritime defence industry," according to Boustead's annual report.
Originally Boustead told the Malaysian Stock Exchange that the service contract was for RM600 million (US$184.1 million) for six years, or US$30.68 million annually. However, the contract later ballooned to RM270 million per year. Boustead Holdings is partly owned by the government and has close connections with UMNO.
"There are good grounds to believe that [Perimekar] was created with a single objective: arrange payment of the commission and allocate the amount between different beneficiaries including Malaysian public officials and or Malaysian or foreign intermediaries," the complaint states.