Whatever Happened to Altantuya Shaariibuu?

The trial of Abdul Razak Baginda and two of Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak’s bodyguards for the October 2006 murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu has been underway for 150 days with neither the prosecutors nor defense showing much appetite for an aggressive proceeding.

The brutal demise of Abdul Razak’s jilted girlfriend, a freelance Mongolian translator, has been lost in a haze of procedural motions and delays. Critics of Malaysia’s judicial and political systems frequently point to the closeness of Abdul Razak and the two bodyguards, Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri, 31, and Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar, 36, to Najib. The latter were part of the Special Action Squad, an elite team of bodyguards directly under Najib’s control, until they were arrested last November.

Fewer than 50 days have been spent in court over the course of the five months since the trial began. As the trial resumed Oct. 10 after yet another lengthy delay, the prosecution said it had another 15 witnesses left to go with the 38 that have already appeared, leading one lawyer connected with the case to tell Asia Sentinel, “that is a huge number of prosecution witnesses to call, which I think is totally unnecessary.”

What began as gripping drama has devolved into grinding routine, and the Malaysian public has become increasingly bored with the trial. But it still remains one of the most spectacular trials in Malaysian history because of the gruesome execution of the beautiful 27-year-old woman, who was shot twice in the head and then had her body blown up with plastic explosives in a jungle clearing.

The foot-dragging and numbing technical proceedings have led to suspicions on the part of many that it is being deliberately delayed by the prosecution and the judiciary to lessen the eventual impact of an expected not-guilty verdict, although legal sources point out that Malaysia has no pre-trial discovery process, which means that in other jurisdictions time-consuming activities like the identification of evidence are concluded before the trial begins. But in the case at hand, suspicions have been heightened because of the politically well-connected defendant in a judicial system saddled with scandal, inefficiency and suspected collusion with government for nearly 20 years. The concerns emanate from a landmark event in 1988, when then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad sacked Tun Salleh Abbas, the highly respected Lord President of the Supreme Court, when the court refused to buckle under on government decisions.

Certainly, there are questions about the delays, including a one-week break in mid September for a judges’ conference and another while Abdul Razak Baginda went for treatment of an eye problem. In August, there was a three-week break to give lawyers on both sides time to handle other cases. There have been lengthy trials-within-trials while prosecutors and defense attorneys squabbled over the admissibility of evidence. Most of last week was taken up with a debate on DNA evidence.

“In civil cases this is the usual thing,” the lawyer said. “But I am surprised that it has gone on this long. I don’t think we have had this kind of factual circumstance in a criminal trial in Malaysia’s legal history.”

The bodyguards accused of pulling the trigger, Azilah and Sirul, are alleged to have killed Altantuya at the behest of Abdul Razak, who had broken off his affair with her. She was demanding as much as US$500,000 in support money for a child he supposedly had fathered. In a statement to police, he acknowledged that he had given Altantuya US$10,000 on three separate occasions.

As Asia Sentinel previously reported, there is abundant reason to suspect that Najib also knew Altantuya, despite his protestations, although his name has been mentioned only once in the Shah Alam high court where the trial is being held. 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.

Najib and Abdul Razak, probably accompanied by the translator, were in France together at the same time in 2005, perhaps because of a military procurement deal that netted Abdul Razak a fortune. In a letter left behind after her death, Altantuya said she regretted blackmailing Abdul Razak, although she didn’t say what the blackmail entailed.

At the time she accompanied Abdul Razak to Paris, Malaysia’s defense ministry, headed by Najib, was negotiating without bids through a Kuala Lumpur-based company, Perimekar Sdn Bhd, which at the time was owned by yet another company called Ombak Laut, wholly owned by Abdul Razak Baginda, to buy two Scorpene submarines and a used Agosta submarine produced by the French government under a French-Spanish joint venture, Amaris.

The Malaysian ministry of defense paid one billion euros (RM4.5 billion) to Amaris for the three submarines, for which Perimekar received an 11 percent commission, 114 million euros (RM510 million) from Amaris. Deputy Defense Minister Zainal Abdidin Zin told the Dewan Rakyat, Malaysia’s parliament, that the whopping commission was not a bribe, but was a fee for “coordination and support services.”