photo: Altantuya continues to haunt them
Nearly eight years after her gruesome murder in a jungle clearing
near Kuala Lumpur, Mongolian translator and party girl Altantuya Shaariibuu is
coming back to haunt Malaysian Prime Minister Najib, his wife, Rosmah Mansor,
and other members of Najib’s family.
The action is taking place in a Malaysian Bar Council three-person Advocates
and Solicitors Disciplinary Board committee that is seeking to determine
whether one of the country’s top lawyers acted improperly in helping to force a
now-dead private investigator, Perumal Balasubramaniam, known as Bala, to
recant a sworn statement tying Najib to the murdered woman.
The lawyer, Cecil Abraham, is a Tan Sri, one of the highest honorifics passed
out by the king to praise prominent citizens. Americk Sidhu, a lawyer for Bala,
who died of a heart attack in March of 2013, is charging on Bala’s behalf that
Abraham, at the behest of Najib, his wife and others, wrote a statement for
Bala to sign which said Najib had never had anything to do with Altantuya.
The tribunal is now hearing charges of unprofessional conduct against Abraham.
A second top Malaysian lawyer is expected to be called soon before the
committee and is expected to say that he too had been approached by an
individual close to Najib to write the fake statement, but that he had refused
to do so. Although such disciplinary proceedings are usually held in private,
lawyers are pressing to open this one to the public because of what they called
the overriding public interest in the matter. They might get it. The Bar
Council is independent of the government and its top members traditionally have
been regarded as hostile to it.
The questions over Balasubramaniam’s statement have reawakened other questions
over a lurid, much bigger drama that has never been finished satisfactorily. It
started on Oct. 18, 2006, when two of then-Defense Minister Najib’s bodyguards,
Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri and Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar, allegedly dragged
the 28-year-old woman out of a car in a secluded spot near the Kuala Lumpur
suburb of Shah Alam as she begged for her life and that of her unborn baby.
They shot her in the head twice and then wrapped her torso in C4 military
explosive and blew it up, possibly to destroy the DNA of the fetus she said she
The two were convicted of the murder after a long-running trial that appeared
designed to make sure nobody in Malaysia’s power structure would be brought to
court. However, they were eventually freed on appeal under highly unusual
circumstances. A sworn statement by Sirul gave excruciating details of
Altantuya’s murder, but the confession was never introduced in court.
Altantuya herself was at the center of a much larger scandal involving the US$1
billion purchase of French submarines by the Royal Malaysian Navy that resulted
in a kickback of €114 million passed through a company owned by Najib’s
then-best friend, Abdul Razak Baginda, into the coffers of the United Malays
National Organization, the most important element of Malaysia’s ruling national
coalition , according to voluminous documents made available to Asia Sentinel
from a French investigation into the matter. Altantuya at the time of the
finalization of details on delivery of the submarines was Razak Baginda’s
girlfriend although he ditched her later. That investigation is still going on.
At the time of her death, she had flown down to Kuala Lumpur to vainly
blackmail Razak Baginda for US$500,000, according to a letter she had written
that was found later in her hotel room. At the time she was harassing Razak
Baginda for the money, he hired Bala to attempt to keep Altantuya away from
In the course of conversations with Razak Baginda during several meetings to
discuss what to do about the jilted woman, the onetime defense consultant
allegedly told the private detective she had been Najib’s girlfriend before she
became his because Najib expected to become prime minister and he couldn’t
afford to have an exotic mistress on the side. Razak Baginda also told Bala
that Altantuya liked anal sex and gave a series of other lurid details. Before
her death, she also gave details of the affair with Razak Baginda to Bala.
Bala’s sworn statement, given to the press on July 3, 2008, caused a huge
sensation in Malaysian political circles, although it wasn’t covered in the
mainstream press, which is wholly owned by the political parties in power. It
also triggered frantic activity on the part of those surrounding Najib to shut
the private detective up, according to statements he made later and documents
filed in court.
According to a civil suit filed in High Court in Kuala Lumpur on behalf of
Bala’s family against eight plaintiffs including Najib, his wife, Najib’s
brothers Ahmad Johari Tun Razak and Nazim Tun Razak and others, Bala was
intimidated into making the second statement, which was written for him by
Cecil Abraham. With the help of Deepak Jaikishan, then a close friend and
business partner of Rosmah’s, the private detective was bundled into a car,
driven to Singapore, given HK$20,000, and put on a plane for Chennai, India
with the promise of plenty of cash.
Bala didn’t stay quiet. Instead, he made a long series of press conferences
detailing how Nazim Tun Razak and Deepak had hustled him out of the country and
gave photocopies of checks he subsequently received, drawn on their accounts.
The charges, however, haven‘t gained much traction in a country whose entire
political establishment appears to have been engaged in a ferocious defense to
keep all aspects quiet including rigging the court case to make sure nobody was
charged along with Sirul and Azilah. Razak Baginda had been arrested originally
with the two on charges he had asked for their help in getting rid of her but
he was released without having to put on a defense. Musa Safri, Najib’s chief
of staff, was said to have assigned the two to take care of her, but he was
never called as a witness, nor was Najib.
With the acquittal of the two by an appellate court, the case appeared to have
died until the Bar Council brought the disciplinary charges against Cecil
Abraham. The case now has threatened to boil over again with revelations that
another of the country’s most distinguished lawyers is ready to testify to
having been approached by Najib‘s representatives to write Bala’s recantation
and refused to do it. Asia Sentinel by John Berthelsen