IHT: Politics shadows murder trial in Malaysia June 4, 2007Posted by elizabethwong in Current Affairs, Malaysia, Politics.
Before Zul Nordin was replaced as one of the defendant’s lawyer.
Friday, June 1, 2007
KUALA LUMPUR: Since November, when the charred remains of a jet-setting young Mongolian were discovered in a patch of jungle outside this modern capital, her mysterious murder has captivated the political elite here, not least because prosecutors say she was killed by commandos assigned to the second most powerful man in the country, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak.
With the trial set to begin Monday, Malaysians hope a basic but still elusive question will be answered: who was behind the murder in October of Altantuya Shaariibuu, 28, and why?
The trial is perhaps the most high-profile case in Malaysia since Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister, was charged with sodomy and corruption almost a decade ago, and was beaten by the chief of police while in detention.
Like the Anwar trial, the inquiry into Shaariibuu’s murder has raised questions about the transparency and thoroughness of this country’s judicial system and about the practices of the Malaysian police. One of the bodyguards charged with murdering Shaariibuu bragged that he had killed “between 6 and 10 people,” according to an affidavit submitted in a pre-trial hearing.
Three men have been charged in the case: the two bodyguards and Abdul Razak Baginda, an adviser to the deputy prime minister, who is accused of aiding and abetting the killing of Shaariibuu, who he says was his mistress. They face death by hanging if convicted.
Shaariibuu was a part-time model who spoke English, Russian and Mandarin, according to local media reports. She was shot and her body destroyed with explosives, the police say. Malaysians have speculated for months as to whether her murder was the result of a lover’s quarrel or part of a more sinister and far-reaching cover-up involving high-level government officials.
“We are interested to know whether there is any political link to the murder,” said Zulkifli Noordin, a lawyer representing Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri, one of the bodyguards. “Why were all the people involved linked to No. 2?” he asked, referring to Najib.
Zulkifli said he would explore Shaariibuu’s role in the purchase of French submarines by Malaysia in 2002.
“She may have been involved as the interpreter in the arms deal between the French company and the Defense Ministry,” Zulkifli said. “We want to see whether there are any links.”
Zulkifli also plans to call Najib to the stand to inquire about meetings the deputy prime minister held with his client, he said.
One defense lawyer is skeptical that the court will explore possible motives for the murder.
“Motive is a very interesting question,” said Kamarul Hisham Kamaruddin, a lawyer representing the other bodyguard charged, Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar. “But it is irrelevant here if they have physical evidence that three people have done it.”
Prosecutors, Kamarul predicts, will focus narrowly on the actual killing. Under Malaysian law, which resembles British or American legal tradition on this point, prosecutors need not show motive to get a conviction.
“It may be a trial where everything is said and done but nothing is answered,” Kamarul said.
Outside the courtroom, some analysts here see the case as a proxy battle for Malaysia’s top political job, currently held by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. It is likely to stoke a long-standing rivalry between Najib, who as deputy prime minister is the heir apparent to the job of prime minister, and Anwar, the former deputy prime minister who was released from prison in 2004 and is seeking to make a political comeback.
More than anyone in Malaysia, Anwar has publicly urged a broader investigation into the purchase of the French submarines, allegations of kickbacks in that deal and the role that Shaariibuu may have played.
“The issue is who gave the instructions?” Anwar said in an interview this year. “If the instructions to the commandos were to finish off this girl and any traces because she was a threat to national security, what then is the status of the murder?”
Anwar says he is skeptical that the police can conduct a fair investigation into a killing that involves Najib’s bodyguards. He called for an independent inquiry.
“There’s a political damage exercise here,” said Sankara Nair, a Malaysian lawyer not involved with the trial. “Anwar is throwing a small political bomb into Najib’s camp.”
Anwar’s most forceful allegation is that the deputy prime minister’s bodyguards, some of whom are members of a special commando force, only act on orders from the top.
“Their duty is like the Secret Service – to protect,” Anwar said. “That’s why questions must be raised.”
Najib has said little about the trial, except that he never met Shaariibuu and that he wants to let the investigation and trial take their course.
But a spokesman for Najib responded angrily to Anwar’s allegations.
“This is a not a banana republic!” said the spokesman, Sariffuddin Ahmad, adding that Anwar was basically accusing Najib of ordering the killing.
“He’s trying to politicize the trial,” Sariffuddin said of Anwar. “We should wait for the trial to start and separate fact from myth.”
Lawyers say the trial could last longer than two months. With appeals, a final verdict may not be known for years. It is also possible that the judge or the attorney general could reduce the charges against the three men, a scenario favored by at least one defense lawyer.
“We are prepared to go for a lesser charge,” said Zulkifli, speaking for his client. Zulkifli said he had already submitted a plea of manslaughter to the attorney general, a charge that carries a 20-year sentence.
“There has been no reply,” he said.
Asked whether the plea was not an admission of guilt, Zulkifli said: “At least it doesn’t carry a capital offense.”
The most detailed public account of the circumstances surrounding the murder so far has come from Abdul Razak, who, in an unusual move, submitted an affidavit in January detailing his relationship with Shaariibuu, as part of an unsuccessful attempt to secure bail.
For years Abdul Razak, 47, was a suave, globetrotting policy adviser to Najib, and the head of the Malaysian Strategic Research Center, a research organization. He has a wife and daughter.
In the affidavit, which was widely reported in the Malaysian media, Abdul Razak described an illicit affair that turned ugly. He said Shaariibuu had tried to blackmail him and that, after he gave her tens of thousands of dollars, she continued to harass him.
Last October, he said, he called contacts inside Najib’s office and told them of his problem. It was at this point, Abdul Razak alleges, that Azilah, the head of Najib’s security team, boasted to him that he had killed numerous people and that he could “finish off the girl.” Abdul Razak said he begged him not to do “anything untoward.”
Zulkifli, Azilah’s lawyer, denies that his client ever bragged of killing people: “There was never any statement made by my client to that effect.”
According to Abdul Razak, on Oct. 19, Shaariibuu showed up at his house. He called Azilah, who arrived, forced her into a car and took her away. Prosecutors say she was killed outside Kuala Lumpur between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.
The trial will determine whether this version of events holds up. But a fuller picture of who Shaariibuu was and how deeply she was involved in government contracts or other political dealings may wait for another day.
“There is going to be this question at the end of the trial: Why on earth would these two people do that?” Kamarul said. “That question needs answering. At least from the point of view of the public.”