What did Najib know and when did he know it?

In Malaysia’s sensational and politically explosive case of the murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a Mongolian translator and jilted lover, the trial of three defendants so far has been remarkable for the man who isn’t there: the most obvious potential suspect and witness. That is Najib Tun Razak, the deputy prime minister and former defense minister. As shocking and lurid as the murder itself, it may well have implications beyond the crime itself for Malaysia’s defense establishment.

On trial for their lives on charges of killing the 28-year-old beauty are Abdul Razak Baginda, who is accused of conspiring with Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri, 30, and Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar, 35, members of the elite Unit Tindak Khas or Special Police Action Unit. Altantuya was found in a jungle clearing near the Kuala Lumpur suburban city of Shah Alam last year after she was shot in the head on October 18 and her body blown up with C4 plastic explosives.

Despite the fact that the case has been underway since June, Najib’s name has been mentioned only once in the Shah Alam high court where the trial is being held. When his name came up, both the defense and the prosecution hurriedly demanded that the mention be withdrawn. Malaysia’s government-influenced newspapers have mentioned Najib only reluctantly in connection with the case, merely printing that he had sworn before Allah that he had never met the woman.

Yet Abdul Razak, the alleged instigator and the victim’s former lover, was a close friend and political advisor of Najib’s until the time of his arrest – so close that Najib wrote the foreword to one of Abdul Razak’s books. There is abundant evidence that despite Najib’s protestations that he never met Altantuya, he and Abdul Razak, probably accompanied by the translator, were in France together at the same time in 2005, perhaps dealing in a shady transaction that netted Abdul Razak a fortune. The murder itself was allegedly carried out by Najib’s personal bodyguards. A friend of the victim testified that she had seen a picture of Najib with the ill-fated couple, yet the court showed no interest in seeing the photo.

Consider the facts below, which have been culled from Abdul Razak’s sworn statement, a handwritten letter written by the victim and found after her death, other documents and facts that have come out in open court. None of them are new, but no one in the courtroom – prosecution or defense -- has attempted put them together to point at Najib:

  • Abdul Razak, the married head of the Malaysian Strategic Centre in Kuala Lumpur, met Altantuya, described as a freelance interpreter and translator, at a gala party in Hong Kong in 2004, according to a written statement given under oath that Abdul Razak gave to investigators after he was arrested in November 2006.

  • In that statement, Abdul Razak said he met Altantuya again in Shanghai in early 2005 and traveled with her to Kuala Lumpur and France in mid-2005. He told investigators that he had given the woman US$10,000 on three different occasions in cash and jewelry.

  • She accompanied Abdul Razak to Paris at a time when Malaysia’s defense ministry was negotiating through a Kuala Lumpur-based company, Perimekar Sdn Bhd, which at the time was owned by yet another company called Ombak Laut, which was wholly owned by Abdul Razak Baginda, to buy two Scorpene submarines and a used Agosta submarine produced by the French government thrrough a French-Spanish joint venture, Armaris. The contract was not competitive.

  • The Malaysian ministry of defense paid one billion euros (RM 4.5 billion) to Amaris for the three submarines, for which Perimekar received a commission of 114 million euros (RM 510 million) from Amaris. Deputy Defense Minister Zainal Abdidin Zin told the Dewan Rakyat, Malaysia’s parliament, that the commission was not a bribe to Perimekar. He said the money was paid for “coordination and support services” although the fee amounted to a whopping 11 percent of the sales price for the submarines.

  • Although Najib denies ever meeting Altantuya, according to the website of the Malaysian Association in France and other websites, on June 11, 2005 Najib gave a press conference in France after having visited the site where the two Scorpene submarines were being built. “As a maritime nation, (the) acquisition will give our navy the added capabilities,” he told the media. Earlier, in the port city of Brest, Najib had visited a naval base where Malaysian navy submariners were training, and, according to the log of an Australian submariner association, presented jackets made available by Perimekar to the crew.

  • Najib, Abdul Razak and Altantuya were thus in Europe at exactly the same time. Abdul Razak was one of Najib’s closest friends. Given this closeness and the fact that the three were in Europe at the same time – and that Najib was presenting jackets made available by Perimekar to the crew – it is almost impossible to believe they had not met.

  • Altantuya, by her own admission in the last letter she wrote, had been blackmailing Abdul Razak, presumably to keep his family from finding out about their relationship. But in his cautioned statement to the police, he said he had already informed his family of the relationship and said she was pressuring him for US$500,000. If the family knew about the relationship and the fact that it had been severed, it seems farfetched to think blackmail over a failed relationship would have been enough to drive him to order her murder, even though in his statement he said Altantuya had threatened his daughter. He could just have said “my wife knows about this, and you’re to go away.” Why would he not employ legal means to drive her away and protect his family?

  • Blackmail seems an odd word unless Altantuya’s tale of blackmail might have also involved the commission paid for the submarines – in which she appears to have acted as a translator – and the relationship between Najib and Abdul Razak. Her father, Shaariibuu Setev, a psychology professor in Ulan Bataar, has repeatedly said she was killed because “she knew too much.”

  • What makes it doubly unusual was that Abdul Razak was able to go to Najib’s bodyguards and request that she be removed. It seems farfetched that he could order Najib’s bodyguards to kill her without Najib’s permission. Bukit Aman UTK deputy commander Mastor Mohd Ariff, an associate of the two bodyguards, said each subordinate member in the unit was required to carry out their official duties by following all orders of their superiors without question, describing UTK members as “like robots” who would only receive orders from superior officers. Abdul Razak, a civilian and a mere friend Najib’s, was not a superior officer in any sense.

  • Another big question is why the immigration records of Altantuya and her two Mongolian companions were erased from the government’s immigration files. It is difficult to believe that the bodyguards would be able to call immigration and have those records pulled on their own authority. Abdul Razak, who, although he was obviously influential, didn’t have the authority to have the records removed. So who did?

  • Somehow, although murder is a non-bailable crime, Razak also was freed on bond initially without security on the grounds of having had bronchitis previously, and the bail was extended until public outcry forced his incarceration. Who had the clout to get a common citizen out of jail on a murder rap, especially on the rather flimsy excuse of having had bronchitis in the past?

  • Why did the deputy prosecutor, Salehuddin Saidin, rule out the possible involvement of any other parties than the three accused long before the investigation was complete?

  • Why did the lawyer for one of the two police defendants quit, saying his defense strategy had been subjected to pressure?

  • How did the bodyguards get their hands on C4, a plastic explosive available only to Malaysia’s defense forces and not the police?

None of these questions have been asked in court and both prosecution and defense have betrayed a signal unwillingness to stray beyond questions about the three defendants. The prosecution has attempted to impeach the testimony of two of its own crucial witnesses, supposedly because their testimony was unreliable, and there have been numerous moves to eliminate much of the physical evidence from the case. The confession of one of the two bodyguards has been ordered stricken. Najib has not been questioned officially about the case.

Many other strange things have happened in the courtroom itself:

  1. Why was the judge who originally took the case removed and a new one suddenly promoted to the high court to take over?

  2. Why were the prosecution team replaced on the night before the trial?

  3. Why did both defense and prosecution lawyers seek to strike the testimony of Altantuya’s friend, Burmaa Oyunchimeg, 26, about the photograph of Altantuya with Najib? Why was there no attempt to subpoena the picture, reportedly in the possession of Altantuya’s mother in Mongolia, or to find it?

  4. Why were the immigration records not subpoenaed to find out who ordered the records pulled to eliminate any record of Altantuya’s presence in the country?

  5. Why did neither the defense nor the prosecution ask in court about Abdul Razak’s acknowledged trips to France over the defense contracts with Altantuya and who had accompanied them? Why was there no attempt to subpoena records to discover if she had been paid by the Malaysian government?

  6. Why has there been no attempt to subpoena Abdul Razak’s own travel records on these jaunts?

  7. Why wasn’t Najib’s chief of staff called to the witness stand, when Razak Baginda said in court that he had asked him to have the bodyguards take care of Altantuya?

  8. Why has the prosecution sought to impeach two of its own most important witnesses? One of them, Lance Corporal Rohaniza Roslan, was the girlfriend of the senior of the two bodyguards, and she saw Altantuya being taken away in a car by her boyfriend. The other was Yusri Hasan Basri, a UTK member and colleague of defendant Sirul, who had important information on physical evidence in the home of another of the bodyguards?

Ultimately, it appears that there is a lot of evidence that the court, the prosecution and the defense all agree must not be heard.