Ghosts Gather at Najib’s Feast

The days of Malaysia's rise as an Asian Tiger Economy have long been past, but only now is Prime Minister Nijib Razak finding himself cornered. Above, a Malayan Tiger at National Zoo Malasia. Photo: Tu7uh/Wikippedia/CC BY 3.0

Malaysia’s status as an Asian “Tiger Economy” is long gone — but only now is Prime Minister Nijib Razak finding himself cornered, as international investigations proceed into his involvement in murder, bribery, theft and corruption. Above, a Malayan Tiger at National Zoo Malasia. Tu7uh/Wikippedia/CC BY 3.0

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
February 5, 2016

Najib Razak. Photo: Malaysian government official photo.

Najib Razak. Photo: Malaysian government official photo.

For nearly a decade Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak’s control of the country’s government, its judiciary, and most of its media, has short circuited investigations into his involvement in murder, as well as bribery, theft and corruption on a mind-boggling scale.

But in the last few days it has become evident that examinations of Najib’s past are now outside his control. There have been significant strides forward in investigations in France, Switzerland, Singapore and the United States.

Najib, of course, protests his innocence on all counts. But at the very least, he has kept happy and constant company with venality throughout his time in senior positions in the government of Malaysia. The worst interpretation that can be put on his activities is very bad. There have been at least four suspicious deaths along Najib’s trail. Two were clearly murder and others don’t pass the smell test.

There are two main stories here, which have converged as foreign investigators step up their inquiries into Najib’s dealings.

The first is the October, 2006, murder by Najib’s bodyguards of the Mongolian model and translator, Altantuya Shaariibuu. Najib was Malaysia’s Defence Minister at the time and Altantuya was the mistress of his top aide and policy advisor, Razak Baginda. She is said to have acted as translator in Malaysia’s negotiations with the French arms company DCN for the purchase for $US2 billion of two Scorpene-class submarines. The French company paid a $US200 million bribe to a company controlled by Baginda to secure the deal, and Altantuya was killed after she demanded a promised $US500,000 cut of the pay-off.

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The second story revolves around nearly $US700 million, which suddenly popped up in Najib’s personal bank account in 2013. The immediate suspicion was that this was part of around $US4 billion that has gone missing from the government-backed national investment fund, 1Malaysia Development Bhd. (1MDB), which is $US11 billion in debt. The fund was set up in 2009 by Najib, who is his own Finance Minister, in cahoots with a financier of dubious reputation, Low Taek Jho, known as Jho Low.

There was a major break in the Altantuya story last week when news broke that on December 14 French prosecutors, who have been investigating for four years, arrested Bernard Baiocco, the 72-year-old former president of Thales International Asia. This is the subsidiary of the arms manufacturer DCN, which supplied the submarines to Malaysia. Baiocco is charged with paying bribes of 114.9 million euros – about $US200 million – to Najib and Baginda, who are named in the indictment as recipients of the money.

In an interview with London’s Financial Times newspaper this week, Baginda, who lives in exile in Britain, said there was no corruption and the money paid to his company was legitimate compensation for his lobbying and years of work overseeing the deal.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, the Monetary Authority of Singapore and the Singapore Commercial Affairs Department issued a joint statement saying they have seized a large number of bank accounts associated with the 1MDB fund and are co-operating with investigations being carried out by U.S. and Swiss authorities. “Singapore does not tolerate the use of its financial system as a refuge or conduit for illicit funds,” said the statement. Both departments are “actively investigating possible money laundering and other offences carried out in Singapore.”

Malaysians protest in Kuala Lumpur on May 8, 2013, against national elections they claim were stolen through fraud by the coalition that has ruled for 56 years. Firdaus Latif/ Wikipedia/Creative Commons.

Malaysians protest in Kuala Lumpur on May 8, 2013, against national elections they claim were stolen through fraud by the coalition that has ruled for 56 years. Firdaus Latif/ Wikipedia/Creative Commons.

What is astonishing is how successful Najib has been at smothering criticism at home in Malaysia, or any serious attempts to remove him from the leadership of the United Malays National Organization, the party that has ruled the country since independence from Britain in 1957. It has taken some clever footwork, an amenable judiciary and a largely slavish media because one of Najib’s most vocal critics is Mahathir Mohammed, the retired Prime Minister who managed Malaysia’s rise as one of the leading Asian “Tiger Economies” in the 1980s and 1990s. It was also Mahathir who enabled Najib to take over the premiership in April, 2009, by waging a public campaign that forced the retirement of his predecessor Abdullah Badawi. But Mahathir has reconsidered his actions and now blogs almost daily on the sins of the Najib government. Mahathir remains very popular among Malaysians, but to date his antipathy towards Najib has not been effective enough to unseat the Prime Minister.

That may change as Najib’s chickens finally come home to roost.

It was Mahathir who, as Prime Minister, brought Najib into senior cabinet positions, first as Defence Minister in 1991, then as Education Minister in 1995 and then back to Defence in 2000.

It was during Najib’s second tour in Defence that today’s stories begin. Najib oversaw a major build-up and modernization of the Malaysian military, including the purchase of two Scorpene-class attack submarines from the French company DCN. The negotiations, completed in 2002, were led by Najib’s chief aide and policy advisor, Razak Baginda.

There’s some confusion about how Altantuya Shaariibuu fits into the story of the submarine purchase. There are allegations that she spoke French because she had attended a modelling school in Paris in the late 1990s, and was therefore used by Baginda as a translator during the negotiations. However, the first time it can be proved Altantuya accompanied Baginda to Paris was in 2005, three years after the deal was done, and the French company says all their negotiators spoke English. Translation was unnecessary.

It is also not clear when Altantuya became Baginda’s mistress, though the 2005 trip to Paris is the most likely date. Indeed, there are persistent allegations that she was first the mistress of Najib, but he passed her on to Baginda when it looked as though he had a chance of becoming Prime Minister. He didn’t want the presence of a mistress harming his chances of grabbing the gold ring.

Baginda appears to have dumped Altantuya fairly promptly, but she refused to accept the rebuff quietly. In September and October 2006 she took to parading outside Baginda’s house in Kuala Lumpur demanding that he see her. In a note she left in her hotel room, which was found after she died, she said she had been promised $US500,000 for her part in the Scorpene deal and was threatening to go public with the story about the $US200 million bribe paid to Baginda and Najib unless she got her money.

Baginda, to say nothing of his wife, was not best pleased by Altantuya’s demonstrations outside his house. What happened next remains one of the continuing mysteries of the story, particularly who said what to whom. Whatever the theme of those conversations and whoever was involved, it led to an instruction being given to the head of Defence Minister Najib’s bodyguards, Deputy Superintendent Musa Safri. He sent two men from his “special action unit” to deal with Altantuya.

On the evening of October 18 the two policemen, Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri and Corporal Sinul Azhar Umar, were waiting in a car near Baginda’s house when Altantuya arrived. They bundled her into the car, drove her into the jungle outside Kuala Lumpur, shot her twice in the head, and then blew up her body with C4 military explosive. Why they did this has also never been satisfactorily explained, but the most widely believed story is that Altantuya had claimed to be pregnant and the killers wanted to make it impossible to determine the paternity of the foetus.

Investigators quickly identified the policeman, Azilah and Sirul Azhar, as well as Baginda, and in the summer of 2008 the trial started of all three men on charges of murder. From the beginning, it was clear the whole judicial process was going to be highly stage managed. Early on, the judge rejected a defence petition that Najib be called to give evidence. Also rejected was a request to call a private detective, Balasubramaniam Perumal, who had investigated Altantuya for Baginda and given a statutory declaration to a commissioner of oaths on July 3, 2008, in which he claimed Najib was directly involved in the arrangements of the murder.

(The following day Balasubramaniam held a press conference to retract the declaration. He then disappeared and turned up in India a few weeks later. Over the following years Balasubramaniam made several semi-clandestine visits to Malaysia to see his wife and children. Then, in late February, 2013, he returned openly to Malaysia, saying he wanted to get justice for Altantuya. He died of an apparent heart attack in Malaysia on March, 15, 2013.)

The judge hit his top C in the orchestration of the trial on October 31, 2008, when he decided, before any serious evidence had been heard, that there was no case for Baginda to answer, and he was acquitted. Baginda high-tailed it to Britain on the first available flight and has stayed well away from Malaysia since.

Azilah and Sirul Azhar were not so lucky. Their assigned roles not only as murderers, but also as fall guys for their superiors became apparent when no attempt was made to ask in court who had given them the order to abduct and kill Altantuya. Their commanding officer, Deputy Superintendent Musa Safri, was not even called to give evidence, leave alone quizzed about who ordered the killing of the Mongolian model.

On April 9, 2009, Azilah and Sirul Azhar were found guilty of the murder and sentenced to death. However, on August 23, 2013, the Court of Appeal acquitted both men on the grounds that the prosecution had been flawed. That wasn’t the end of it. On January 13 last year, the Federal Court ruled on an appeal by the prosecution, and reinstated the finding of guilt and the death penalty for both men. In the interim, however, Sirul Azhar had wisely moved to Australia. The Malaysian authorities are trying to extradite him, but Canberra will not extradite people to countries where they face the death penalty.

Last month, the other killer, Azilah, sent a petition to Malaysia’s Pardons Board asking for clemency and commutation of his death sentence. There’s no indication at the moment when the Board may make a decision.

While all these courtroom shenanigans were playing out, Najib succeeded Abdullah Badawi as Prime Minister of Malaysia on April 3, 2009. Three months later, in July, Najib announced the creation of the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund. From the start the fund was focussed on strategic infrastructure projects in energy, tourism, real estate and agribusiness. But it never seemed to be very good at the sovereign wealth fund game. In the middle of last year there were persistent reports from credible analysts that 1MDB was $US11 billion in debt.

More than that, the true purpose of the fund became a matter of public question when it was found that close to $US700 million had been transferred into a personal account of Prime Minister Najib in 2013, apparently from 1MDB. A Malaysian government probe found that the money came from companies and agencies linked to 1MDB, but flowed from the Swiss bank account of a British Virgin Islands-based company. And because the company held its account in the Singapore branch of the Swiss bank, both those authorities have got involved in the investigation. The Swiss bank is a branch of the American JP Morgan bank, so U.S. regulators are also hot on the trail of the money.

On January 26, the Swiss authorities announced that as much as $US4 billion appears to have been stolen from the 1MDB fund. On the same day Najib tried to put an end to the drip, drip, drip of allegations through a statement made by his Attorney General, Mohamed Apandi Ali. And here we have a wonderful piece of symmetry with the two stories coming together. Apandi Ali led the three-judge panel in the Court of Appeal that acquitted Azilah and Sirul Azhar after their original conviction and before the Federal Court reinstated the conviction and sentence.

But Apandi Ali was last week no more successful at clearing up Najib’s involvement in the 1MDB mess than he was in slipping Atlantuya’s two killers out of the side door and into oblivion.

The crux of Apandi Ali’s statement was that the $US700 million placed in Najib’s personal account in 2013 was not money from the 1MDB fund. It was a personal gift from a member or members of the Saudi Arabian royal family. So, said Apandi Ali, there was no crime to investigate or anyone who should be prosecuted.

Few people are convinced, for several reasons. One is that while he was making his statement to reporters, Apandi Ali was injudicious enough to be carrying a copy of the report by Malaysian authorities into the $US700 million and the 1MDB fund. An enterprising photographer used a telephoto lens to get close up pictures of several pages of the report. The charts and graphs show investigators found other trails of tens of millions of dollars above and beyond the $US700 million flowing from the fund to the Prime Minister’s personal accounts and credit cards.

Another reason for public scepticism is that, while Saudi officials have been diplomatic and circumspect in answering questions about the supposed $US700 million “gift,” they have said that such a donation to a foreign leader would be “unprecedented.”

Meanwhile, the death toll mounts. On September 4 last year, Kevin Morais, one of the chief investigators for the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission into Najib and the 1MDB fund, whose particular task was preparing charges against the Prime Minister, left his apartment in Kuala Lumpur. By chance, a nearby CCTV camera caught pictures of him being bundled into a car by two men. Morais’ body was later found in a barrel of cement in a river outside Kuala Lumpur. Several people have been arrested.

 

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.”

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com. Please address queries about syndication/republishing this column to jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

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Related Jonathan Manthorpe columns:

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Ghost of murdered mistress haunts Prime Minister of Malaysia

Murdered Mongolian aspiring fashion model, translator and mistress to the mighty, Altantuya Shaariibuu, may yet get the last laugh. The men who murdered Altantuya in October, 2006, two police bodyguards to Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, who was then the defence minister, were acquitted on appeal in 2013 after a farcical judicial process. The trial was a fine example of the skill with which Malaysia’s judiciary has learned to perform in politically sensitive cases involving the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which has ruled the country at the head of the Barisan Nasional coalition since independence from Britain in 1957. So when Malaysia’s Federal Court reversed the acquittal, and upheld their original conviction and the death penalty, it is a signal that the political ground has shifted.

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

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