By: John Berthelsen

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Altantuya Shaariibuu, the Mongolian jet-setting beauty who was murdered in a patch of forest near Kuala Lumpur on October 18, 2006, was killed because she was causing trouble and she knew too much.  It appears likely that the mystery of her death, 12 years later, may now be finally be unraveling.

Asia Sentinel carried 73 stories on the events surrounding her death between 2006 and 2015, with several more in the intervening three years. We may now be about to learn what happened.

The 28-year-old translator was shot in the head by elite bodyguards for Prime Minister Najib Razak as she begged for her life and that of what she said was her unborn child after a whirlwind romance with Abdul Razak Baginda, then Najib’s best friend and, according to French prosecutors, a participant with him in a giant scandal. Razak Baginda had jilted her and she was demanding US$500,000 in front of Razak Baginda’s house when she was scooped up and thrown into a jeep by Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri and Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar, never to be seen alive again. Her body was wrapped in C4 explosives and blown to bits, possibly to destroy the DNA of the fetus she was carrying. All that was left, when she was found, were bones that filled two urns.

A month after Altantuya was killed, on November 9, 2006 Sirul sat down with recording officer Nom Phot, was read his rights, agreed that he was not speaking under duress, and confessed to the murder, saying Azilah had told him the two would be paid between RM50,000 and RM100,000 to kill the woman.

That confession, despite the fact that everything appeared to be in order, was never introduced in a court of law. It was printed verbatim in Asia Sentinel on March 20, 2009.  Three years after the murder, a Kuala Lumpur court convicted the two of murder without ever seeking to learn who would pay them the money.

That question has never been answered, but now it may be. Sirul has been in an Australian detention center since 2015, having fled Malaysia while he was temporarily freed on appeal. The conviction was later reinstated in Malaysia and Australian authorities detained him.

According to the Malaysian news portal Malaysiakini, Sirul now wants to return home and tell the full story of how Altantuya was killed in exchange for a pardon. Since he was detained, Sirul, a convicted murderer, has had the advice and assistance of two lawyers from the United Malays National Organization, the leading party in the Barisan Nasional, the party headed by Najib Razak, which decisively lost the May 9 general election.  With UMNO now having been ousted from power, Sirul’s lawyers apparently have disappeared.

Mohamad Fuzi Harun, Malaysia’s new top police officer, said he would discuss reopening the investigation into the murder.

So what did Altantuya know that made her so troublesome?  She accompanied Razak Baginda, and almost certainly Najib as well on a jaunt to Paris to meet with officials of DCNS, the French munitions giant, in the final stages of the purchase of two Scorpene submarines from a DCN subsidiary, Thales. Altantuya was identified as a “translator” on the trip, according to documents obtained by Asia Sentinel in 2012.  Najib has sworn on the Quran that he never met her although there are credible reports that he had. 

Among other things, according the documents, a DCNS agent, Jean-Marie Boivin, paid for a jaunt to Macau for Razak Baginda and Altantuya. Altantuya was identified as the translator on the transaction. Other news sources say the two lovers toured Europe in Razak Baginda’s Ferrari before he ultimately jilted her.

According to a series of stories that won Asia Sentinel the 2013 award for excellence in investigative journalism from the Society of Publishers in Asia – Asia’s version of the Pulitzer Prize – UMNO was paid kickbacks in the equivalent of US$141.3 million at then-prevailing exchange rates for the purchase of the submarines. Ironically, the submarines can’t operate in Peninsular Malaysian waters. They were stationed in East Malaysia, where they were virtually useless.

However, as Asia Sentinel reported, the kickbacks were paid with the knowledge of French government officials all the way up to then-Foreign Minister Alain Juppe and with the knowledge of then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and other Malaysian officials.

Given her intimacy with Razak Baganda – and possibly with Najib himself, according to a now-dead Malaysian private detective Perumal Balasubramaniam – it is likely that she knew considerable about how the US$141 million ended up with UMNO. According to a sworn declaration by Balasubramaniam, she had spent time with both Razak Baginda and Najib as her lover as well, and she had been promised the US$500,000 as a “commission” for assisting in the submarine transaction.

Today, French authorities have issued a warrant for Abdul Razak Baginda on bribery charges in the purchase of the submarines.  Two Thales officials have also been charged specifically with bribing Najib Razak.

From the start, it has been inconceivable that two elite policemen who had never known of Altantuya’s existence until the day she was murdered would decide out of the blue to kill her.

The stakes – a woman scorned and pregnant, standing on the street demanding that Razak Baginda show himself  or willing to tell what she knew – were high. By her own admission, in a letter found in the hotel room where she was staying, she said she was blackmailing Razak Baginda.

Razak Baginda, after her death, seemed to express horror that she had actually been murdered.  In public statements, he said he had only asked that someone “do something” about her to keep her from harassing him. In a highly unusual move, a high court judge turned him loose without ever having to put on a defense, whereupon he fled for the UK for several years.

It was Najib’s aide de camp, Musa Safri, who ordered Sirul and Azilah to pick up the woman, according to additional reports. Musa was never questioned, nor did he testify in the trial.  The question is who told Musa to order the two police commandos into action. If Inspector General of Police Fuzi decides to reopen the case, if Sirul makes his way back to Malaysia, We may now find out.