Ten Years on, Mongolian Beauty’s Murder Remains Unexplained in Malaysia

It will soon be 10 years since Altantuya Shaariibuu, a jet-setting Mongolian translator and party girl, was murdered sensationally in a patch of jungle outside the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Petaling Jaya on the night of Oct. 19, 2006. Although two elite policemen were convicted of killing her, the party who ordered her execution has never been identified and justice remains unfulfilled.

The 28-year-old beauty’s death has connections to one of the biggest scandals in Malaysian history although that scandal has since been superseded by another that dwarfs it – the disappearance of as much as US$7 billion, lost from the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd. Investment fund.

Both of those scandals can be laid directly on the doorstep of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. The death of Altantuya Shaariibuu also has disturbingly close relations to the Prime Minister, through the people who killed her.

At the time of her death, Altantuya had just been jilted abruptly by a prominent defense consultant and Najib’s close friend, the married Abdul Razak Baginda, after accompanying him to France in the later stages of an agreement by the French defense giant DCN to sell two Scorpene submarines to Malaysia for US$1 billion. Najib is widely believed to have been along on the trip.

French prosecutors have alleged that €114 million in kickbacks were routed to the United Malays National Organization, the country’s leading political party, through a company called Perimekar that Razak Baginda had established just prior to the transaction. Another €28 million was routed to a Hong Kong-based company called Terasasi Ltd. whose principal officers were Razak Baginda and his father. Two French officials have been charged in court with bribing Najib, who was defense minister when the Scorpene transaction took place.

According to the documents obtained by Asia Sentinel, the money was passed on with the knowledge of then-French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe and then-Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. French officials identified Altantuya as a translator during the final preparations between the two governments to hand over the vessels to Malaysia. A French official later paid for a trip by Razak Baginda and Altantuya to Macau on holiday.

According to a sworn statement by the late private investigator Perumal Balasubraniam, Razak Baginda told him he had in effect inherited Altantuya from Najib himself. According to Bala’s statement, Najib at the time was defense minister and expected to become prime minister – and a Mongolian beauty and mistress wouldn’t have looked good.

Altatantuya acknowledged in an undelivered letter found in her hotel room after her death that she had demanded US$500,000 from Razak Baginda in "blackmail" although she didn't say what the blackmail threat referred to -- her threats against the family or possibly her knowledge of the Scorpene transaction.

The true identity of the persons who ordered the woman’s gruesome death – shot twice in the head, and then her body, believed to be carrying an unborn child, was blown up with military explosives – has never been learned. The destruction of her body is believed to have been an attempt to demolish the fetus’s DNA. Although Najib’s aide-de-camp at the time, Musa Safri, was the man contacted by Razak Baginda to “do something about her,” according to Razak’s statement taken directly after her mangled remains were discovered, Musa was never either questioned by police or called as a witness.

At the time of Altantuya’s death, the two killers, Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar and Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri, were members of the elite Unit Tindakan Khas (the Malaysian Police Special Action Force) that protected Malaysia’s top leaders, including Najib, the man who ordered the purchase of the submarines.

The affair began when, shortly before her death, Altantuya flew with two friends to Kuala Lumpur to confront Razak Baginda. According to court testimony, the jilted woman repeatedly tried to see him both at his home and office. Two days before she disappeared, she stood in front of his house shouting "Razak, bastard, come out." Court testimony that was almost immediately suppressed found that the immigration records of the three women's entry to Malaysia had disappeared.

On the evening of October 19, 2006, according to court testimony, Altantuya returned to Razak Baginda’s home. She was suddenly collected up by Sirul and Azilah. They had left their official duty stations and go off to kill a woman that they had never met, using police-issued weapons that could be traced back to them. Against all rational analysis, Malaysian officials have insisted the killing was a random act although Sirul, in a statement never admitted in court although he was clearly informed of his rights prior to making it and acknowledge the statement was voluntary, said the two were to be paid RM50,000 to RM100,000 once the "matter was settled."

Sirul’s statement describes in graphic terms the events that led to her death and the destruction of her body with military explosives. He first knocked her unconscious and shot her, then shot her again to make sure she was dead..

Razak was subsequently charged with having abetted her murder, a charge he strongly denied. He was acquitted without having to put on a defense in 2008 although in a statement given to the police he said he had asked officials to “do something” about Altantuya.

Sirul and Azilah, who pleaded not guilty, were convicted in 2009 of the murder and sentenced to death. During their 159-day trial, over two and a half years, Sirul said he was “a black sheep who has to be sacrificed” to protect unnamed people. A US Embassy cable made public by Wikileaks speculated that the trial was being deliberately delayed.

Both men were acquitted by the Court of Appeals in 2013. Sirul immediately left for Australia on a tourist visa before the Federal Court, Malaysia’s highest, was to hear an appeal by federal prosecutors against the acquittal. In January 2015, the Federal Court reinstated their convictions and death sentences and Azilah went alone to prison.

When authorities learned Sirul was staying with his son in Queensland, they arrested him on a tourist overstay and detained him in Villawood, where he has remained ever since. Remarkably, after he made sensational remarks by telephone to the popular news site Malaysiakini that he might tell what he knew, two lawyers connected with the United Malays National Organization flew to Australia to defend him – raising the spectacle that lawyers for the country’s top political party were defending and advising a convicted murderer in one of Malaysia’s highest-profile cases.

There the matter has stalled. Azilah is in prison, Sirul is in comfortable detention in Australia. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has vainly demanded a deeper investigation into who paid the two to kill the Mongolian beauty. There has been no response. Mahathir has been threatened with libel and sedition charges in his attempts to pull down Najib.

Despite widespread calls for justice, Altantuya Shaariibuu’s death, her participation on the Scorpene transaction and the events that led to her death ten years ago remain unexplained.