Political Analyst Freed in Mongolian Murder Case
|Our Correspondent||Oct 31, 2008|
After one of the lengthiest trials in Malaysian history, a politically well-connected insider was acquitted Friday of ordering the murder of his jilted lover, a woman whose death had the potential to reach into the highest levels of the ruling party.
With the acquittal of political analyst Abdul Razak Baginda, the question was left hanging of who ordered the murder of Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu on October 19, 2006, allegedly by Police Inspector Azilah Hadri and Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar. After ordering Abdul Razak freed, High Court Judge Mohd Zaki Md Yasin ordered the two put on a defense.
Altantuya, aged 28 at the time of her death, was executed by two shots to the head in a jungle clearing near the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Shah Alam on October 19, 2006 and her body was blown up with C4 explosives available only to the military. She reportedly had come to Malaysia to confront Abdul Razak over his decision to end their affair.
The two belonged to an elite bodyguard unit under the control of Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, who appears likely to become the country’s next prime minister, and who was one of Abdul Razak’s best friends.
During the 151-day trial, in which 84 prosecution witnesses testified, none of them was Najib although two statutory declarations and other evidence linked him to the dead woman. According to a detailed sworn statement by P. Balasrubramaniam, a private investigator that Abdul Razak hired to keep Altantuya away from him after he had broken off their affair, the political analyst told him he had inherited the Mongolian woman as a lover from Najib because Najib didn’t want to be harassed as deputy prime minister.
However, almost immediately after Balasubramaniam made the statement public, he was hustled to the Brickfields police station in Kuala Lumpur where he said he had been coerced into making the statement and recanted it entirely. He and his entire family have since disappeared. Raja Petra Kamaruddin, the influential blogger who printed the statement in his Internet publication Malaysia Today, was arrested under the country’s Internal Security Act and is serving two years in prison. He is also being sued for criminal defamation over some of his reports that tied Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, to the murder. He has also been charged with sedition for publishing other articles on the murder.
Rosmah has denied Raja Petra’s allegations but 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.
According to evidence introduced at the trial and other sources, Abdul Razak contacted Najib’s chief of staff, Musa Safri, to ask Najib’s bodyguards, Azilah and Sirul, to “do something” about Altantuya. Musa was not required to appear as a witness. Deputy Commander Mastor Mohd Ariff, an associate of the two bodyguards, said members of the unit were required to follow all orders of their superiors without question, describing the unit’s members as “like robots” who would only take orders from their superiors. Abdul Razak, a civilian and friend of Najib’s, was not a superior officer. According to an affidavit filed by Abdul Razak, Azilah contacted Abdul Razak after Altantuya’s disappearance to say that “tonight encik (sir), you can sleep well.”
Testimony by the murdered woman’s cousin indicated that immigration records of Altantuya and the two Mongolian companions who had come to Malaysia with her to confront Abdul Razak disappeared from the government’s immigration files. She also responded to a question that she had seen a picture of Altantuya having dinner with Najib before she was hurriedly hushed up by both prosecution and defense lawyers.
Nonetheless, Judge Mohd Zaki dismissed a bid in July to call Najib as a witness in the trial. Zaki also refused to call Balasubramaniam despite his written declaration, which implicated Najib in the events leading up to the murder. In addition to other lurid details, Balasubramaniam described text messages between Najib and Abdul Razak in which the latter was asking for help to avoid arrest.
Later, a series of text messages was made public indicating that Najib had been involved in finding a lawyer, Shafee Abdullah, to represent Abdul Razak. One message from Shafee to Najib said: "We provided (the police) everything, including old PDAs and notebooks and a couple of bills. Nothing incriminating." Malaysia Today said the exchange raises questions if anything "incriminating" was kept from the police.
Besides allegations that Altantuya was the lover of both men, the case has raised additional concerns of corruption at the top of the United Malays National Organisation, the leading political party in the national ruling coalition. The Mongolian woman appears to have been 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.”
A letter written by Altantuya shortly before she disappeared indicated that she was attempting to blackmail Abdul Razak for US$500,000, raising suspicions that she had inside knowledge of the transaction. The woman’s father, Shaariibuu Setev, a psychology professor in Ulan Bataar, said she had been killed because she “knew too much,” although he never elaborated on what she knew.
The trial has been rife with other irregularities. At the start, the original judge was replaced by Mohd Zaki. The prosecution was hurriedly changed so quickly that the trial had to be postponed. There were numerous attempts to limit the introduction of physical evidence. Sirul’s confession was ruled invalid because it was not cautioned.
The prosecution also sought to impeach two of its own important witnesses. One, Lance Corporal Rohaniza Roslan, was the girlfriend of the senior of the two bodyguards and said she saw Altantuya being taken away in a car by her boyfriend. Later she said her testimony had been coerced. Another was Yusri Hasan Basri, a member of the bodyguard team and a colleague of Sirul, who said he had important information on physical evidence in the home of another of the bodyguards.