Is UMNO Paying a Convicted Murderer’s Legal Fees?

Immediately after he was detained in Australia, police constable Sirul Azhar Umar, the bodyguard who was convicted of the 2006 murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu, caused a storm in Malaysia by telling the news site Malaysiakini that the Mongolian translator’s murderers were still free.

For a relatively short period, reporters were allowed free access to Sirul at the Sydney immigration center. One, is said to have spent four hours with him, during which time Sirul verified that a cautioned statement he gave to police in 2006 describing the murder was accurate. In that eight-year-old statement, Sirul revealed that someone was willing to pay him and his co-killer, Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri, RM50,000 to RM100,000 to shut up the 28-year-old fixture on the international party circuit. However, he declined to name the individual who had ordered the two to kill her, or why.

Today, it appears that Sirul is not going to name that person now, or maybe ever. He is in the hands of lawyers from the United Malays National Organization, who apparently have told him to shut up. One is Hasnal Rezua Merican, an UMNO Youth division leader, and the other is Kamarul Hisham Kamaruddin, a former deputy prosecutor who represented Sirul during his original trial and who, when he received his datukship, was described as “of UMNO headquarters.” Sirul, having spent the better part of the past eight years in jail, is presumably destitute, or close to it. That raises the question whether UMNO is paying for his legal fees, and raises a further question why the country’s biggest political party, and the leading party in the government, is paying the bills for a fugitive and convicted murderer. Sirul’s son is also being cared for in Australia by unknown sources.

Sirul was arrested in February, having entered Australia in November of 2014 following his earlier acquittal by the Malaysian Appeal Court. After the Federal Court reversed that acquittal in January of 2015 and sentenced him to death, a warrant was issued for his arrest. It has been expected there would be a request for his extradition back to Malaysia. Australia doesn’t return migrants if they are facing a death penalty.

Sirul is the wild card in the deck concerning the murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu, the most notorious crime of its type in recent Malaysian history. In the eight years since the woman’s death, Sirul has provided the clearest indication that someone high in Malaysian political circles wanted her dead. He is now 4,100 km from Kuala Lumpur and out of the tight control of the government figures who engineered his original trial to steer any suspicion away from whoever might have ordered him and Azilah to kill her.

The reasons remain unclear, but there is considerable suspicion that Altantuya had had an affair with someone who got her pregnant. That person, or persons connected to him, appears to have ordered her killing and the destruction of her body with plastic explosives to obliterate the fetus she was carrying and its DNA. In a letter found after her death, she also indicated she was blackmailing her jilted lover, Abdul Razak Baginda, for US$500,000. She played a minor role as a translator for Razak Baginda, a close friend of current Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and a key figure in negotiations over the purchase of submarines by Malaysia that resulted in a €114 million kickback to UMNO. Another €39 million was steered to Razak Baginda through a shelf company in Hong Kong for his part in the transaction.

The Malaysian government has shown a curious public lack of curiosity over Sirul – until Sirul’s mother went to visit former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to ask for advice. Mahathir, on his blog Chedet has been asking embarrassing questions about who ordered Sirul to kill Altantuya. That seems to have got UMNO’s attention.

According to Clare Rewcastle Brown, writing in her blog Sarawak Report, “within days of the news of that meeting, two Malaysian lawyers who are representing Sirul suddenly appeared at the Villawood detention center in Sydney on Wednesday and Thursday, Apr.15 and 16 to see Sirul, after a gap of several weeks.”

“’They told him to shut up’” a person close to the situation told Brown. “’He was told not to speak to any media and not to speak to anyone associated with Dr Mahathir or his chance of a protection visa [leave to stay] will be in danger. They have advised him that he needs to keep his mouth shut or he may incriminate himself, even though he is already incriminated.’”

The visits by reporters ceased. Lawyers close to the situation in Kuala Lumpur have told Asia Sentinel Sirul’s own family members have been told they have no access to him. After Sirul responded inconclusively twice to emails from Asia Sentinel, he has since not answered

These developments coincided with a series of media announcements back in Malaysia from his legal team. On Apr. 12 Kamarul told the press that Sirul wanted “supporters and critics to stop speaking for him“.

The lawyers told the Kuala Lumpur-based news site Malaysian Insider that they had advised Sirul not to speak to anyone further on the ground it could jeopardize the outcome of the proceedings of his case. That apparently included Malaysia’s police, despite a statement by the Inspector General of Police, Khalid Abu Bakar, that he had sent police to interview him. Kamarul implied the police had lied about sending a team to Australia to investigate.

Sirul has become increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress on the part of his own lawyers, according to Rewcastle Brown: “They are doing nothing, just telling him to wait, wait, wait and not to see outside people,” she quoted the source as saying. “I have a strong suspicion that Sirul has been paid to keep his mouth shut and if he breaks that there is a heavy penalty. Somebody, somewhere will pay. Something that is dear to him is being held to ransom if he opens his mouth.”