Prosecution Setbacks in Mongolian Murder Case

After a fourth week of testimony, concerns are growing in Kuala Lumpur that a series of prosecutorial setbacks and allegations of political influence are endangering the case against the three men charged with the murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu.

The 28-year-old Mongolian translator was killed on October 18 last year and has since become the grim centerpiece of one of the most controversial criminal cases in Malaysian history. The case, spectacular enough on its own as a tale of love gone horribly wrong, is tinged with overtones of the possible involvement of political figures at the very top of the national power structure. A jet-setting beauty and mother of two, Altantuya had flown to Malaysia to confront Abdul Razak Baginda, the of a local political think tank, to demand as much as US$500,000 from him after he had jilted her following a whirlwind romance in Hong Kong, Paris and other cities, during which he had already given her tens of thousands of US dollars.

Altantuya acknowledged in a letter read in court by her cousin that she had been attempting to blackmail Abdul Razak to force him to give her more money for the upkeep of their love child. The considerable sums of money Abdul Razak had given her, and the additional half-million US dollars she was asking for, have raised questions in Kuala Lumpur about how she thought the head of a think-tank would have that kind of cash lying around.

Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri, 30, and Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar, 35, both from the police special action squad that protects top political leaders, are on trial for her murder. Abdul Razak, 46, is charged with abetting the crime. The three face the death penalty if convicted.

Earlier this week in the suburban Shah Alam High Court, the prosecution received a serious setback when Sirul’s purported confession was thrown out by Judge Mohd Zaki Mohd Yasin because the corporal’s admissions, made during a flight from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur last November, were made “involuntarily.” Sirul had been on a mission to act as bodyguard to Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi when Mastor Mohamad Ariff, the deputy commander of the bodyguard squad, was sent to bring him back as a suspect.

Although Altantuya’s bloody shoes were found in Sirul’s car and blood tests indicated they were hers, lawyers in Kuala Lumpur say there is little physical evidence to connect any of the three to her death.

Altantuya was driven away in a red Proton Saga from the front of Abdul Razak’s house after she had gone there to confront the political analyst. At one point, she was heard to shout, “Razak, bastard, come out, I want to talk to you.” Her body was later discovered in a jungle clearing near Shah Alam. She was shot twice in the head and her body was blown up with explosives. The prosecution has alleged that the cause of the death was “possible blast injuries,” an indication that bullets may not have killed her.

Also last week, the prosecution considered impeaching the testimony of its own witness, Rohaniza Roslan, a 28-year-old policewoman, who reportedly witnessed Altantuya’s abduction. Rohaniza had accompanied Azilah Hadri, then her boyfriend, to the home.

Rohaniza testified that she had been “tortured and coaxed” by police interrogators into signing a statement that differed considerably from her testimony in court.

Also last week, Zulkifli Noordin, who abruptly quit as Azilah’s defense attorney, told an opposition political party newspaper that he had quit because of serious attempts to interfere with the defense he had proposed, in particular to protect a third party whom Zulkifli refused to name.

The name of Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has been tied to the case from the start. Both Azilah and Sirul served as his bodyguards. Abdul Razak, in an affidavit filed in court in December, acknowledged that, under increasing pressure from Altantuya, he had contacted the two bodyguards through Musa Safri, Najib’s aide-de-camp, to ask for help in dealing with her.

Continuing revelations of Najib’s closeness to the case have dented his credibility, although probably not to the point yet of threatening his political career. Nonetheless, he was compelled to issue a statement that he had never met Altantuya. “Allah is my witness,” he said.

In the Zulkifli story, which was printed in the political organ of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, which is dominated by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Zulkifli described Azilah as "a man who found it difficult to trust others.” He looked "depressed and fearful,” Zulkifli added, saying Azilah “felt that he had been betrayed. This is a big case. A murder case. When a person is accused of being a murderer and feels that he has been betrayed, it would be difficult for the individual to trust anyone else because in his mind he feels that everyone wants to betray him."

Zulkifli said he was told that several police colleagues supported Azilah and offered to “protect” him as they wanted him to expose the case to salvage the good name of their security unit, known by its Malay language initials UTK. "They know that the UTK will only act under orders,” Zulkifli told the publication “Azilah is a member of the UTK. He would not issue an order to his subordinate if he didn’t receive orders from the higher-ups.”

A senior lawyer in Kuala Lumpur cautioned against reading too much into Zulkifli’s story. In the first place, he said, Zulkifli is a politician, as can be seen in his involvement with Keadilan. “The recent events may seem like a setback to the prosecution and to an extent they are. But reliance on Sirul’s confession per se is not the main and only criteria. The judge will take into account the overall evidence. The evidence must be viewed in total.”

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