Mongolian beauty’s Malaysian Murder Case Postponed

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With the prosecution team abruptly changing hands Monday, a Malaysian High Court judge has granted a two-week postponement of the politically-charged trial of three defendants for the gruesome murder last October of a 28-year-old Mongolian beauty.

Adding to the confusion, Zulkifli Noordi, a defense attorney for one of the policemen charged in the case, quit, saying there were "serious attempts by third parties to interfere with the defence I proposed." He didn't elaborate, but said the interference would compromise his ability to act in the case.

Judge Mohd Zaki Md Yasin granted the postponement although no reason was given for the sudden change in prosecution teams. The new lead prosecutor, Majid Tun Hamzah, told the court he had only been notified of his new responsibility last night as he was on his way home. Majid asked for a month to prepare for the trial but the judge gave him only two weeks because of the problem the postponement posed for foreign witnesses. The trial is now due to start on June 18.

The remains of of Altantuya Shaariibuu were found in November in a patch of jungle near the suburban city of Shah Alam. On trial are Abdul Razak Baginda, 46, once the influential head of a well-connected political think-tank and close friend of Najib Abdul Razak, the deputy prime minister; and Azilah Hadri, 31, and Sirul Azhar Umar, 36, who were part of an elite unit that guards Malaysia’s top leaders under Najib’s jurisdiction.

Although 132 potential witnesses have been named for the trial, none of them is Najib. Nor has he been questioned, despite the fact that the two policemen answer to him and that Abdul Razak Baginda, one of his closest friends, is charged with abetting the two. Opposition politicians have been demanding answers as to why he hasn’t been called for questioning or as a witness.

In an affidavit filed in October, Abdul Razak Baginda acknowledged that he had carried on a seven-month romance with Altantuya Shaariibuu across the globe – in Hong Kong, China, Singapore, France and Malaysia, and that he had given the woman US$10,000 on three separate occasions before the romance turned ugly and he sought to end it. The affidavit also directly implicated Azilah, the chief of Najib’s commando unit, who allegedly told Abdul Razak that he had killed numerous people and that he could “finish off the girl for him.” Azilah’s lawyer denies the officer had ever made that statement.

Shaariibuu, who has been variously described as a part-time model and translator, was murdered between 10pm on Oct 19 and 1am on Oct 20, according to police. When found, she had been shot twice and torn apart with hand grenades available only to Malaysia’s security forces. After two weeks in the jungle near Subang Dam, the body had been reduced to bone fragments. Abdul Razak is accused of ordering the slaying.

Subsequent reports said that Shaarriibuu had had a child by Abdul Razak and that she had shown up in Kuala Lumpur, demanding that the political analyst accept his responsibility as the father. After he refused to see her for several days, he allegedly agreed to meet her at his home, where she was shoved into a car by two men and a third member of the force – a 22-year-old woman lance corporal – was also arrested.

She was never named in news stories by Malaysia’s government-friendly press and was released a week later without being charged. There is widespread speculation in Malaysia that she is the aide-de-camp and bodyguard to Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor.

However, the involvement of the elite police, who answer only to Najib, and the fact that Abdul Razak Baginda is one of his closest friends, has raised questions about whether the deputy prime minister had ordered the bodyguards to do something about Shaariibuu. In his affidavit, Abdul Razak Baginda acknowledged that he had called contacts inside Najib’s office and asked for help.

It was at this point, Abdul Razak said,that Azilah offered his assistance. The affidavit doesn’t say he ever spoke to Najib. But later that night, Azilah called Abdul Razak and told him, "tonight encik (sir), you can sleep well," the affidavit said.

In any case, the affair has escalated into a full-blown political scandal, with former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, now an opposition leader, crisscrossing the country demanding answers to what happened. He made allegations of Najib’s involvement a central issue in a recent by-election in a Perak district, but the United Malays National Association candidate survived. Opposition leaders have charged that the election was rife with voter irregularities.

“In my personal experience,” Anwar last year told a press conference at his home, “the (elite police) are there to protect the deputy prime minister and they work under our instructions. He (Najib) should at least be asked how is it a person assigned to you, to protect you and work under your instructions, can (allegedly) commit such a heinous crime.

"It is vital that whilst those who pulled the trigger are brought to justice, all those who are responsible for directing the killing must be made known," he said in a statement read out at a news conference at his house. “In fact, such persons bear greater responsibility for the crime."

It hasn’t helped that the case, first scheduled for March 2008, was accelerated over hundreds of others and moved to tomorrow’s trial date. Also, Abdul Razak Baginda was briefly freed on bail, almost unheard of in a capital murder case, before public outrage resulted in his being sent back to jail. The case has also been passed off to a different judge than the original, raising questions among critics.

It has been complicated by the arrival of Shaaribuu Setev, the dead woman’s father, the director of the National University of Mongolia’s Information and Educational Center, who last month criticized Najib Tun Razak for abstaining from all responsibility for the murder.

"I take note that Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak has denied...that he was in any manner related to my murdered daughter Altantuya," Shariibuu said in a statement. "But I would like to remind dear Mr Najib and also the Prime Minister of Malaysia Abdullah Ahmad Badawi that the crime was committed by your security officers,” he said.

Najib has repeatedly denied any involvement in the case. Although Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has indicated his faith in his deputy, political analysts in Kuala lumpur say it has damaged his political career. It remains to be seen whether the trial will contribute to that damage, or will exonerate him.