The Fallout From a Malaysian Murder Verdict

Although well-connected Malaysian political analyst Abdul Razak Baginda was acquitted Friday of ordering the murder of his jilted lover Altantuya Shaaribuu, political analysts in Kuala Lumpur believe the political fallout is far from over.

Attorney Karpal Singh, who is holding a watching brief in the trial for the family of the dead Mongolian translator, said prosecutors are discussing the possibility of rearresting Razak and taking the case to Malaysia’s Court of Appeal to argue against acquittal. Under Commonwealth law, prosecutors not only can appeal acquittals but can argue for stiffer sentences. On Tuesday, representatives of the Mongolian government and Altantuya’s family asked that Razak be jailed until the appeal is disposed of.

The question is whether the prosecution wants to appeal. The decision to free Razak, rightly or wrongly, is regarded by Malaysia’s increasingly cynical citizens as politically charged and powered by his friendship to Najib Tun Razak, the scandal-scarred deputy prime minister who is expected to succeed the flagging Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as prime minister early next year.

The decision by High Court Judge Mohd Zaki Mohd Yasin to free Razak has kicked off a furor in Malaysia, with legions of outraged bloggers calling the decision a joke. Said one email critic: “How can one help but come to the conclusion that the elite, with the proper connections, can get away with anything?” She was only one of scores of Internet critics criticizing the decision.

Razak’s two alleged accomplices, Police Inspector Azilah Hadri and Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar, have been ordered by High Court Judge Mohd Zaki Md Yasin to put on a legal defense in the case, which stems from the brutal murder of the 28-year-old woman on October 19, 2006, when she was shot in the head and her body was blown up with explosives in a jungle clearing near the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Shah Alam. If convicted, they could hang.

Mohd Zaki, in acquitting the politically well-connected insider, whose associations reach to the very top of UMNO, relied heavily on an affidavit to which Razak testified shortly after being arrested. The judge said the affidavit absolved Razak of ordering the murder despite the fact that the document raises as many questions as it answers.

Certainly the acquittal presents an increasing dilemma for the Malaysian court system, which is already under harsh domestic and international criticism on allegations of corruption and political cronyism, if not the ruling national coalition itself. The trial has dragged on for months of apparently pointless testimony that suggested the court, the defense and the prosecutors were attempting to delay it until the sting of a not-guilty verdict would not excite public outrage.

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From Razak’s affidavit and copious other evidence, it appears clear that Azilah and Sirul were given instructions to do something about the 28-year-old Altantuya to keep her from harassing Razak, who had carried on a flamboyant two-year affair with her and had given her thousand of dollars in presents and cash. The questions are who gave them the instructions, and whether the instructions included killing her.

In the affidavit, Razak acknowledged going to Musa Safri, Najib’s chief of staff., to ask the two policemen, members of an elite commando bodyguard unit under Najib’s direct control, to “do something” about Altantuya, who had by her admission blackmailing him for US$500,000.

It has been left unexplained what the dead woman had been blackmailing Razak for, or how, as a civilian and even a close friend of Najib’s, he could persuade two top policemen under Najib’s control to remove Altantuya from in front of his house, where she had been shouting insults at him. In his affidavit, he said he thought they were taking her to a police station. Testimony at the trial by an associate of the two policemen indicated that they would only act on orders, raising the question of who asked them to kill her.

There have been numerous references both in and out of the court that purported to tie the prospective future prime minister and his wife to Altantuya, or at least indicated that he knew the dead woman and in fact could have been her lover, although he has denied it and sworn an oath to Allah that it didn’t happen. The court, the prosecution and the defense so far have steadfastly refused to explore the connections.

Despite testimony by 84 prosecution witnesses during the 151-day trial, critics say Najib has been neither questioned nor asked to testify 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 whom 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."