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 was carrying.
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 him.
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