Rot and More Rot in Malaysia’s Judicial System

With the trial of three defendants for the brutal murder of Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu entering another week, the Malaysian judiciary system is facing arguably its biggest crisis since former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad sacked the Lord President, Tun Salleh Abbas, and two Supreme Court judges in 1988, ending the court’s independence.

The immediate concern is the threatened resignation of two top prosecutors, Yusof Zainal Abiden, the head of the prosecution division, and Sallehuddin Saidin, the deputy prosecutor and head of the classified cases unit. Although the Attorney General’s chambers denied the two were resigning, they later said they were applying for “optional retirement.”

Although no reasons have been given for the retirement, Malaysia’s gossipy legal fraternity seems to believe that the two are leaving because of dissatisfaction over problems in the politically charged murder case. Other top prosecution figures are reportedly considering quitting as well despite the denials.

In fact much of the spreading dissatisfaction with the judiciary relates to how the case is being handled. Sallehuddin had been named head of the prosecution team until he was abruptly dropped from handling it by Malaysia’s attorney general, Abdul Gani Patail, the night before the trial was to begin. The attorney general’s office issued a statement that the dismissal was because Sallehuddin had been seen playing badminton with judges, an explanation that few in the legal system believed. The prosecution was replaced by a new team led by Majid Tun Hamzah.

Before the 28-year-old Altantuya was murdered and her body was blown apart with explosives in a suburban jungle clearing last Oct. 19, she was the lover of Abdul Razak Baginda, the head of the Malaysian Strategic Research Centre and a close advisor to Najib Tun Razak, the deputy prime minister. Abdul Razak was charged, along with Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri and Constable Sirul Azhar Umar, members of Najib’s personal security team, on suspicion that the political analyst had prevailed on the two security men to get rid of her.

The Russian-educated Altantuya, who spoke five languages, and the high-flying political analyst were involved in a whirlwind affair that included expensive gifts and trips to Europe, as well as payments up to US$10,000. After the married Abdul Razak had apparently tired of his paramour, the woman came to Malaysia to demand US$500,000 from him as support for a baby he allegedly sired.

From the time of the arrests, the case has been treated with extraordinary sensitivity in Kuala Lumpur, with every effort being taken to keep Najib’s name out of the trial – attempts that failed when Altantuya’s cousin testified in court that she had seen photos of Altantuya together with Abdul Razak and Najib at a dinner.

Strangely in what is presumed to be a court of law, both the prosecution and the defense asked that her testimony be stricken from the record, and neither side bothered to attempt to subpoena the picture. Nor at any time during the trial has either the prosecution or the defense attempted to ascertain how Abdul Razak, a private citizen, could prevail on Najib’s bodyguards to get rid of the woman without informing Najib about the matter. Najib has never been questioned or asked to testify.

In addition to the replacement of Sallehuddin, there have been other irregularities. One of the most disturbing came when a Mongolian friend of Altantuya’s testified in court that her entry into Malaysia, and presumably that of Altantuya as well, had been expunged from Malaysian immigration computers, implying that someone in government had been asked or ordered to participate in the murdered woman’s complete disappearance. There is no record that either the prosecution or the defense following up on the disappearance of the records.

“Our entry was deleted in the immigration computer,” the woman testified, banging the witness stand and adding: “There is no record of me coming to Malaysia through Beijing. Why?”

Among other questionable occurrences, the case, originally scheduled to be heard in March of 2008, was suddenly moved forward by almost a year before it had to be postponed so that the abruptly appointed new prosecution team could prepare. Many political observers theorized the advance was because Malaysia is scheduled for elections before that time and the government, led by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, did not want a politically embarrassing case going on close to the polls.

Also, Mohd Zaki Md Yasin, who had recently been promoted from a position as a judicial commissioner, was assigned to replace the more senior Justice K N Segara, who had originally been scheduled to hear the case. And, just as the trial began, Constable Azilah’s lawyer, Zulkifli Noordin, withdrew from the case, telling reporters that “There were serious attempts by third parties to interfere with the defense that I proposed.” He declined to elaborate.

Since that time, the defense has been chipping away at the case. A purported confession by Sirul, the junior of the two bodyguards, was thrown out because the statement was made “involuntarily.” An admission by Sirul disclosing the location where Altantuya had been murdered was thrown out on a technicality. Jewelry reportedly owned by Altantuya that turned up in a search of Sirul’s house was ruled inadmissible.

The prosecution sought to impeach the testimony of its own witness, a 28-year-old policewoman and former girlfriend of Azilah, who reportedly witnessed Altantuya’s abduction from in front of Abdul Razak’s home. She had accompanied Azilah Hadri to the home.

Despite the fact that Altantuya’s bloody shoes were found in Sirul’s car, the continuing moves to bar introduction of evidence is increasingly make it appear that there may be little left to tie any of the three defendants directly to the murder.

Worries about the bungling and possible manipulation of the Altantuya case feed into longstanding concerns about the prosecution of other trials, going back to the conviction of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Abrahim, a political enemy of Mahathir’s, in 1999 on corruption and sexual abuse charges that are widely held to have been spurious, and the abrupt dismissal of corruption charges against tycoon Eric Chia, a longtime crony of the former prime minister.

And, on July 27, Attorney General Abdul Gani simultaneously absolved both the Inspector General of Police and the former Director General of the Anti-Corruption Agency of spectacular corruption charges just two weeks after he had done the same for the deputy minister of internal security, the cabinet member in charge of the police force.

These cases have kicked off a firestorm in Malaysian cyberspace, with bloggers scornfully charging that the judicial system is corrupt. The prevailing criticism is that all of these cases are interlinked by the fact that Mahathir ended the judiciary’s independence when he sacked the country’s top judges 20 years earlier, and that until its autonomy from the government – particularly the United Malays National Organisation, the leading ethnic party in the ruling coalition – is reestablished, justice in Malaysia will be hard to come by.

Typical was an online entry by “Pak Pandir Baru:”

“Presently, our judiciary is suffering from credibility problems and the AG's Chambers is heading towards that direction. There is scandal after scandal being perpetrated by those holding the various forts which have caused billions of public funds to be depleted. As one of the guardian of the country's constitution, the AG and his office should be more proactive in fighting grafts no matter how high the person's rank is. As we approach our 50th year of independence, it is sad to see our civil servants being influenced by the present immoral top guns who have no shame in dipping their fingers in the cookie jar for their own personal gain. At the rate we are going, our inept leadership should be ashamed of themselves for getting us in the mess we are in.”