The Malaysian Murder that Won't Go Away

Raja Petra Kamarudin, the editor of the Web site Malaysia Today, has backed away from a controversial charge made in a 2008 statutory declaration that Rosmah Mansor, the wife of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, was present at the 2006 murder of Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu, but substantial questions remain.

Raja Petra told Malaysian television station TV3 on earlier this week that he had been fed erroneous information by Anwar Ibrahim and other individuals connected to the opposition leader. Najib and his wife both threatened to sue Raja Petra over the charge when he printed it. The editor fled Malaysia ahead of the action while facing sedition charges as well. When Najib and Raja Petra both turned up in Australia at the same time a few weeks ago, that raised speculation that Raja Petra was in negotiations to return to Malaysia. Malaysia Today, once the most popular website in Malaysia, has suffered from his absence.

Any indication that Rosmah had been at the scene of the crime had long been discounted, particularly in the wake of a confession by Sirul Azhar Umar, that he and Azilah Hadri, both of whom were Najib's bodyguards, had acted alone in killing the woman. The charge that the premier's wife was present has muddled the case involvng the murder of Altantuya, the jilted girlfriend of Najib's best friend, Abdul Razak Baginda, who was charged along with the two bodyguards as a conspirator in her gruesome murder but was freed.

The 28-year-old pregnant woman was shot twice in the head and her body was blown up with military explosives in a patch of jungle outside the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Shah Alam. There are suspicions that the explosives were used to destroy DNA that might link her unborn baby to someone in Malaysia

Sirul and Azilah were were convicted of her murder. They have filed appeals against their pending execution. Razak Baginda decamped forLondon almost immediately after his acquittal and doesn't appear to have been seenin Malaysia since.

Najib told reporters he was thankful that Raja Petra's allegations had been renounced. However, if anything, the editor's statement has only reawakened other charges. There is still a mass of evidence that casts suspicion on highly-placed individuals in Altantuya's death, including suspicious text messages between Razak Baginda and Najib.

Sirul's confession was never admitted into evidence in the Shah Alam High Court.

In that confession, Sirul told police he and Azilah were to be paid between RM50,000 and RM100,000 (US$16,530-US$33,060) to kill the woman. Azilah, he said, told him that Musa Safri, Najib's chief of staff and aide-de-camp, in turn had told Azilah "about a friend …who had women problems," and that there was "a job to do."

That job consisted of killing Altantuya and two girlfriends who were accompanying the translator from Mongolia in an attempt to get US$500,000 from Razak Baginda, apparently for her role as translator in a spectacular scandal involving a US$1 billion purchase of submarines in which €117 million were to be kicked back to a company owned by Razak Baginda.

Fortunately, when the two went to a hotel to kill the three women, according to the confession, they discovered closed-circuit television cameras in a hallway and decided against it. Later they abducted Altantuya from Razak Baginda's house and stuffed her into a car, from which she was driven to the site where she was murdered.

However, neither Musa Safri nor Najib was ever called to court to explain who Musa was acting for or whether he ordered the woman's killing, or who was going to pay the two the money.

The trial turned into a long series of attempts to keep Najib's name out of it. P. Balasubramaniam, a private detective that Razak Baginda hired to keep Altantuya away from him, issued three affidavits and a video interview that named Najib, then deputy prime minister and defense minister, as having previously had an affair with Altantuya before passing the woman to Razak Baginda because he didn't want to be embarrassed by her when he became prime minister.

The affidavits also accused Rosmah and Najib's brother, Nazim, of offering to pay him as much as RM1 million to shut up and leave the country. He later displayed checks signed by a business partner of Rosmah's totaling hundreds of thousands of ringgit paid to him when he was in hiding in Chennai.

"What possible reason is there for the police and Malaysian Anti-corruption Commission to remain silent over these serious accusations, backed by factual details, against the Prime Minister and his family?" asked Kim Quek, an aide to Anwar, in a prepared statement. "If Najib and family is innocent, wouldn't these law enforcing bodies have sprung to action in the first instance to clear the PM and family of such a horrible stigma?"

As Asia Sentinel reported at the time, all records that Altantuya had ever entered the country along with her companions disappeared from the Immigration Ministry. When one of the two companions mentioned on the witness stand that she had seen a photograph of Najib, Altantuya and Razak Baginda together at a dinner, both prosecution and defense attorneys leapt to their feet to ask that the testimony be stricken from the record.

"The two convicted killers, who were bodyguards to Najib, and trained to execute orders rigidly without question, had no motive on their own to kill someone they had never met," Kim Quek wrote. "And since the third accused, who was accused of instigating the killing, was set free due to lack of evidence, then the remaining question must be: who ordered the killing? Is it conceivable that the bodyguards had killed without order and without motive? Isn't it logical to deduce that the mastermind and real culprit may still be lurking somewhere beyond the realm of the court?"

The submarine deal itself has since morphed into a component in a huge scandal in France in which the state-owned defense company DCNS has been accused to selling naval equipment to Taiwan and Pakistan in exchange for kickbacks to officials all the way to the top of the French government including former prime minister Edouard Balladur. Besides Altantuya, individuals have been murdered in Pakistan and Taiwan in connection with the weapons sales. The current French president, Nicholas Sarkozy, was Balladur's campaign finance manager during the period. He has angrily denied any charges of impropriety.