Shock Altantuya Murder Verdict in Malaysia

Asia Sentinel was given the Society of Publishers in Asia’s highest award for investigative reporting in 2012 for its series of stories on the murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu and the massive corruption connected to her death with the purchase of Scorpene submarines by the Malaysian government from the French government-owned munitions make DCN. A package of the stories can be found here. Malaysia’s highest court has written a new chapter in one of the country’s most spectacular and controversial crimes by condemning two of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s former bodyguards to death for the 2006 murder of Mongolian translator and international party girl Altantuya Shaariibuu.

With considerable luck and a determined judiciary, there could be a coda. The question is whether the verdict, reversing a 2013 appellate court ruling that freed the men, will impel Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri and Corporal Sirul Azahar Umar to tell the full story of the crime. Who offered to pay them RM50,000 to RM100,000 (US$13,900-27,800) to “settle the case,” as Sirul said in a sworn confession that was never introduced in court despite the fact that Sirul had been read his rights and the statement appeared to be in order? The court never asked nor heard an answer to that question.

The guilty verdict shocked political circles in Kuala Lumpur. It had been expected that the Federal Court, which is closely aligned with the ruling Barisan Nasional and its leading party, the United Malays National Organization, would simply ratify the appellate court’s acquittal, given that the not guilty verdict had been issued without any particular controversy besides cynicism 16 months ago.

“It certainly is an uncharacteristic decision although a correct one,” said a longtime western observer based in Kuala Lumpur. “On the surface it does appear to be something that wouldn't please Najib. It’s worth noting however that it was the government prosecutors who were asking the court to overturn the acquittal.”

Onetime US Ambassador to Malaysia John Malott called Altantuya “the woman who knew too much” and added on Facebook that “the fact that Malaysia's courts, which are highly politicized, made this decision spells the beginning of the end for Najib.”

The prime minister, despite being photographed playing golf last month with US President Barack Obama, has been floundering politically in recent months, with Mahathir Mohamad, the prime minister who left office in 2003, having stepped up efforts to get rid of him. Muhyiddin Yassin, the deputy prime minister, is said to be in Mahathir’s camp.

The verdict has also raised hopes on the part of Altantuya’s family and such groups as the human rights organization Suaram, which has pushed the case both in France and Malaysia, that it might be possible to get to the bottom of who ordered her murder. Many critics have pointed out that Azilah and Sirul had never met the woman and had no reason to kill her except for hire,

The affair peripherally involved allegations that €114 million in bribes were paid by the French munitions maker DCN and funneled to UMNO as the result of a US$1 billion purchase of submarines. Abdul Razak Baginda, one of Najib’s closest friends, was an agent for the deal. Altantuya, 28 when she died, was Razak Baginda’s lover and had performed a minor role in the deal as a translator.

The case struggled through the courts for eight years before today’s verdict. The two, from the elite Special Action Force, had been assigned to Najib’s office as bodyguards. Although Azilah showed up for the verdict in the federal court, Sirul was nowhere to be seen. He has repeatedly told others he was a scapegoat and there were reports that he may have left the country and was reported to be in Australia. His lawyer, who represented him in court, said he hadn’t heard from his client since last June after the appellate court’s acquittal.

Altantuya, who is believed to have been pregnant at the time of her death, helped translate in the late stages of the purchase of the Scorpene submarines by the Malaysian Ministry of Defense. According to a note found after her death, she had come to Malaysia from Mongolia to “blackmail” US$500,000 from Razak Baginda. According to a sworn statement by the late private detective Perumal Balasubramaniam, Razak Baginda “inherited” the woman's affections from Najib, who wanted to get rid of her before becoming prime minister. Razak Baginda apparently also grew tired of her after a whirlwind trip through Europe.

With Altantuya standing outside his home and demanding to see him, Razak Baginda, as he acknowledged in a sworn statement, called Najib’s aide de camp, Musa Safri, and asked for help in getting rid of her in October of 2006. A police car swooped down in front of his house and she was taken away and never seen alive again. She was dragged from a car in a patch of jungle near the suburban city of Shah Alam. According to Sirul’s statement, as she begged for her life and that of her unborn child, the two shot her in the head, wrapped her body in C4 explosives, and blew her up, possibly to destroy the DNA of the fetus. Her bones were found later after the two bodyguards led officials to them.

After a 159-day trial that ended in April of 2009 – in which all efforts were made by both sides to keep the names of prominent figures hidden – the court ordered the two bodyguards to be hanged. Substantial evidence connected Najib to the case, including text messages to Razak Baginda assuring him not to worry and saying Najib would fix things. The two bodyguards were later acquitted on a technicality in 2013. Despite his involvement in the case, charges against Razak Baginda were dismissed by the trial judge without a defense. He subsequently left Malaysia for an extended period although he has been seen in Kuala Lumpur.

The story began with Najib’s whirlwind tenure as defense minister, during which he sought to update the country’s defense capability through the purchase of submarines, patrol boats and Russian fighter jets. All of the purchases were later suspected of involving substantial kickbacks and bribes.

French prosecutors looking into massive bribery and kickbacks on the part of the government-owned DCN in half a dozen countries found voluminous evidence of the involvement of French officials up to then-Foreign Minister Alain Juppe in the case, and spelled out that the €114 million “commission,” paid to Razak Baginda’s wholly-owned company, Perimekar Bhd, was to be steered to UMNO. Another €36 million was routed through a Hong Kong shelf company called Terasasi Ltd., wholly owned by Razak Baginda and his father.