Published September 4, 2013.
The torrid and sordid saga around the death of a Mongolian fashion model continues to dog Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, re-ignited by a court decision to quash the murder convictions of her killers, two of his bodyguards.
A decision by Malaysia’s Appeal Court last week, to free the two bodyguards, is the latest in a series of often incomprehensible moves, whose effects are to insulate Najib from the October 2006 murder of Mongolian model and translator Altantuya Shaariibuu.
Opposition politicians have reacted angrily to the court’s decision. They say the judges should have ordered a re-trial, rather than just citing problems with the trial of the two policemen, and that the the evidence for their convictions was “unsafe.”
The renewed political storm comes after Najib led the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition to an election victory, albeit with a reduced share of the popular vote. This was Najib’s first election since taking over the leadership of the senior coalition partner, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), and becoming Prime Minister in April, 2009.
But Najib faces a confidence vote in his UMNO leadership in October. The continuing scandal around the murder of Altantuya may well join public unhappiness about the state of the Malaysian economy in affecting that vote.
The story of Altantuya’s murder begins in the early 2000s. Najib was Defence Minister, and was negotiating a $1 billion purchase for the Malaysian Navy of two Scorpene diesel-electric submarines, made by the French arms manufacturer DCNS in partnership with the Spanish company Navantia.
Altantuya was the mistress of Najib’s close friend and policy advisor, Abdul Razak Baginda. According to various accounts, she acted as translator for the Malaysian team in Paris, where she had trained as a fashion model.
There have been persistent stories, backed by some evidence, that Altantuya was Najib’s mistress first, and that when Najib was appointed Deputy Prime Minister early in 2004 he feared her presence in his life might lose him the top job, and he passed Altantuya on to his friend and advisor Abdul Razak.
Najib claims never to have met Altantuya, but DCNS records seized by the French investigators describe her as a translator in the Malaysian retinue.
Then there’s a statement given to police by Malaysian private investigator Perunal Balasumbraniam, reported to have died of a heart attack last March in India, where he sought refuge after being threatened. Balasumbraniam was hired by Abdul Razak in 2006 to gather information on Altantuya, after he broke off the relationship with her and she began staging protests outside his house.
In a statement filed with police on July 1, 2008, Balasumbraniam said Abdul Razak told him Altantuya was first Najib’s mistress, but he passed her on because he didn’t want her to undermine his prospect of becoming Prime Minister; the next day Balsumbraniam returned to the police station to retract the statement. After his flight to India, the private investigator said he made the retraction under pressure from the police.
As well as bedroom passions, this story involves large sums of money.
As part of the $1 billion submarine purchase agreement, the French and Spanish manufacturers agreed to pay a company called Perimekar, which was owned by Abdul Razak, the equivalent of $200 million for various services around the deal. However, French magistrates are investigating whether this payment was an “illegal commission” – a bribe – paid to senior officials in Najib’s UMNO party.
It seems that as part of her revenge for being jilted by Abdul Razak, Altantuya decided that she should get some of this “commission” as payment for her silence. In a note she left before going to demonstrate outside Abdul Razak’s house on October 18, 2006, she said she was blackmailing her former paramour and was demanding $500,000 to keep silent.
But her death had already been planned.
Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar of the Police Special Action Unit and one of Najib’s bodyguards, later testified he and another bodyguard, Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri, were promised the equivalent of $32,000 each to kill Altantuya. One of the glaring omissions in the subsequent trial of the two men was that no one ever asked them who offered them the money.
On that fateful October night their first thought was to kidnap Altantuya from her hotel, but they were put off by the CCTV security cameras. Instead, they found her outside Abdul Razak’s house, bundled her into their car and drove out of Kuala Lumpur to a clearing in the jungle. They shot her twice in the head, and then tried to destroy her body by blowing it up with C4 military explosive.
This has led to speculation that Altantuya was pregnant. The explosives were used to destroy any foetus and make identification of the father impossible.
Any hope that the death of Altantuya might be allowed to remain unresolved quickly disappeared.
Her closeness to Abdul Razak and Najib excited opposition party interest and the Mongolian government began exerting diplomatic pressure on Malaysia on behalf of the woman’s family. Abdul Razak was originally charged with Altantuya’s murder along with the two police bodyguards.
But despite Abdul Razak having made a sworn statement in which he admitted asking officials in Najib’s office to “do something” about Altantuya, the High Court judge at the end of October, 2008, interrupted the trial to drop the charges and free him. Abdul Razak immediately fled to Britain where he has stayed since.
The trial of the two bodyguards dragged on into 2009, but on April 9 it ended with them being found guilty and sentenced to death.
The court’s agreement to hear an appeal was delayed for over two years. The eventual unfolding of the appeal process appears to have been dictated more by Malaysia’s political timetable, especially the May general election, than problems with the court diary.
The decision of the Appeal Court last week to overturn the convictions of the two bodyguards means that no one has been held responsible for Altantuya’s murder. Jonathan.firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe