Will Altantuya’s Murderer Talk in Australia?

The detention in Brisbane, Australia, of Sirul Azhar Umar, one of the two condemned killers of Mongolian beauty Altantuya Shaariibuu, must be sending shock waves through Kuala Lumpur and the unknown parties who ordered her execution in October of 2006.

“This is going to be dynamite,” said a prominent Malaysian lawyer who preferred not to be identified. “There is lots of vibration going on in foot apparel,” a suggestion that top political figures in Kuala Lumpur might be shaking in their boots. Reporters and lawyers are feverishly trying to get Sirul to talk from his jail cell about who ordered the killing and why.

In a Facebook entry that has since been taken down, a user named Shuk Sz, who claimed to be Sirul's son, said in a recent post: "If I talk to the press, Malaysia will fall," and added that"The PM will also fall," he wrote. The Facebook account has since been deleted and it couldn't be verified if it was real.

Once a member of an elite bodyguard unit attached to the office of then-Defense Minister Najib Tun Razak, Sirul was detained in Queensland after Interpol issued a request for his arrest. He apparently fled to Australia last October, according to immigration records. He is now well outside the jurisdiction or protection of Malaysian figures who could conceivably offer him security in return for keeping quiet.

The fact that he had spent three months in Melbourne also raises questions how a police corporal who had spent most of the past eight years in prison was able to raise the money to leave Malaysia.

Since the time Sirul and his co-defendant, former police chief inspector Azilah Hadri, were arrested in 2006, every effort has been made in three courts to make sure no names would be mentioned in the context of who ordered the killing of the then-28-year-old Altantuya, a jet-setting party girl and translator who had been the girlfriend of a close associate of now-Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak. According to a sworn statement by a private detective who has since died she had also once been the girlfriend of Najib himself.

As a translator, Altantuya was peripherally connected to the late stages of a scandal-plagued transaction involving the US$1 billion purchase of French submarines by the Malaysian Ministry of Defense, which Najib headed. The transaction involved bribes and kickbacks amounting to US$150 million or more that French investigators said were routed to the United Malays National Organization political party.

The two ex-cops were sentenced to death by the Federal Court in Malaysia on Jan. 12, reversing a 2013 appellate court order freeing them on a technicality. They were originally convicted in the trial court in 2009 of killing Altantuya, who left a note after her death saying she was “blackmailing” her jilted lover, Abdul Razak Baginda, for US$500,000.

Razak Baginda was also implicated in the crime but was let off by the court without having to present a defense.

Sirul confessed to the crime a few weeks after he was arrested. In that sworn confession, he said Azilah had come to him while he was on duty and said they had a job to do. Later, according to testimony, it transpired that the job had been suggested to the two men by Najib’s aide-de-camp, Musa Safri.

Beyond his acknowledgement that Musa had asked the two to take care of Altantuya, Sirul’s confession gives no indication that anybody ever asked him for any further details on Musa’s request, whether the request actually included an order to murder her or whether someone senior to Musa had passed the word down. Neither Musa nor Najib ever testified and as far as court records can reveal were never asked about the affair.

The government-controlled mainstream media has never asked the obvious questions, nor have they quoted critics who asked them. Only the country’s energetic bloggers have kept the case alive. The appellate court ruling freeing the two in 2013 stated that it was not necessary to look for a motive for the killing.

“If Sirul is real smart, he should tape-record all that he knows and also give a full written report, seal it up nicely and leave it with his lawyers in Australia or in a safe place elsewhere, with instructions for his lawyers to open it in public at a press/TV interview for the whole world audience to hear who ordered the killing,” said a Malaysian acquaintance. “Indeed, he should make sure he or they sink with him.”

Sirul, sitting in a Brisbane jail, has to be considering his rather bleak options. Neither he nor Azilah has ever revealed the name of the party or parties who he said in his taped confession had offered to pay the two RM50,000 to RM100,000 to kill the woman. In court when he was originally pronounced guilty, he broke into tears and said he was being made a scapegoat. He never revealed who made him a scapegoat.

In the meantime, Sirul’s arrest poses an issue for both Australia and Malaysia. The government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott is opposed to the extradition of any condemned individual to a country where the death penalty is practiced, and indeed the country’s formal extradition policy says there will be no extradition unless such a government gives an undertaking that the death penalty will not be carried out. But it has imprisoned a man without charges who has committed no crime on Australian soil. It can't send him back, so what does it do with hijm?

Sirul is hardly a political dissident fleeing a vindictive government. According to all the evidence and his own confession – which was never produced in court despite its seeming validity and legality – he was an executioner-for-hire who put two bullets into the woman’s head after Azilah had knocked her unconscious as she begged for her life and that of her unborn baby.

If Malaysia agrees to take Sirul back without executing him that poses a further dilemma: what to do with his fellow murderer, Azilah, who has also been sentenced to hang and is in custody in Malaysia? Hanging one without the other would be tricky unless the government commutes the sentences for both.

This post was modified on Jan. 25 to include the purported Facebook post by Siril's son