The murder of a glamorous Mongolian woman and the blowing up of her body, the controversial purchase of two French-Spanish-built submarines for $850 million each, the decision of French courts to hear evidence about the alleged bribery of top Malaysians – and the growing links between the three – spell big headaches for Malaysia’s government, and especially for Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Although suppressed within Malaysia’s government-controlled mainstream media, the internet is running riot with the story. It is adding to the challenges piling up for Najib that threaten to lose the UMNO-led coalition power for the first time in 55 years of nationhood.
A week ago about 50,000 people demonstrated for electoral reforms in Kuala Lumpur, with police arresting 450.
Two-thirds of MPs are elected in rural areas rather than cities. But the prospect of a middle-class revolt is sufficiently unsettling, in a Malaysia that is itself steadily becoming more middle class, to cause Najib to postpone any plans for an early poll.
The Prime Minister has this week announced plans to introduce a minimum wage, a reform designed to regain popularity, as was the announcement last year of the removal of the draconian, British-era Internal Security Act. But the momentum remains with the opposition coalition, which includes fervent Muslim Malays and Christian Chinese businesspeople, and which has retained its internal discipline for an impressively long period.
The opposition, led by Anwar Ibrahim, has gained confidence from the eventual failure this year of sodomy charges against him, which he consistently claimed had been fabricated. He wants a royal commission of inquiry into the murder and the submarine purchases.
The Mongolian, Shaariibuu Altantuya, was born in 1978. After two failed marriages, and rearing a child from each, she began to make use of her language skills to find work internationally. She spoke Russian, Chinese, English and French as well as her native Mongolian.
She met Abdul Razak Baginda, born in 1960, a Porsche-driving strategic analyst and think-tank head who has a wife and daughter. But it remains unclear where Altantuya and Baginda first met – whether in Mongolia, Malaysia or France, where she lived for a brief time.
Her father, Shaariibuu Setev, a retired psychology professor, last month visited Kuala Lumpur, where he promised to “connect the dots” between her death and the submarines.
He says his daughter had told him in October 2006 she was flying to Malaysia to obtain a $638,000 payment for work done for “certain companies”, including translation. Setev says she added she would be meeting “important people” – and that she had shown him a photo of herself with Baginda and a friend of his, Najib, who was defence minister from 1991 to 1995, and again from 2000 to 2008.
Najib has denied ever meeting Altantuya and has offered to swear to that effect on the Koran.
Setev says his daughter claimed Baginda had promised her a commission for projects they had worked on together.
When Altantuya’s cousin reported on October 16, 2006, that she had gone missing, a police search found fragments of bone, which proved to be hers, in a forest outside Kuala Lumpur.
She had been shot twice, then her body blown up with sufficient C4, a plastic explosive usually available only through official security channels, to cause a four-storey building to collapse. It was later claimed she had been pregnant.
A police chief inspector and a police corporal who had been deployed for a time as bodyguards to Najib were charged with murder, and Baginda with abetting them.
No motives were ascribed to the policemen for the murder, and the corporal, Sirul Azhar Umar, said enigmatically as the trial began to wind up that he was like “a black sheep that has to be sacrificed”.
During the trial it was said Baginda had been Altantuya’s lover and that she had tried to blackmail him after their relationship ended.
Baginda was acquitted in October 2008 and has since moved to Britain with his family. But six months later the policemen were sentenced to hang for murder. Their appeals are still to be heard.
Baginda had earlier played a leading role in the negotiations for two diesel-electric Scorpene-class attack submarines, which have been sold also to the Chilean, Indian and Brazilian navies. They cost Malaysia altogether about $1.7 billion.
The submarines, commissioned in 2009, were built jointly by Armaris, a company formed by giant corporation Thales International (its regional offshoot named Thint Asia) with French government-controlled DCNS, and Spanish naval architects and builders Navantia.
One submarine is named for Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s first prime minister, the other for Tun Abdul Razak, Najib’s father and the country’s second prime minister.
Najib travelled to France several times with Baginda during the negotiations with Armaris for the deal. Perimekar, a Malaysian firm controlled by Baginda but shielded by a range of shell companies, received about $145m apparently as a commission on the sale, formally described by DCNS as for “support and coordination services.”
A Hong Kong company, Terasasi, whose directors are Baginda and his father, was also used, for the receipt and passing on of $46m from Thint Asia, stated to be for consulting.
A prominent Malaysian non-government organisation, Suaram, with about 5000 members, started two years ago to try to track down where the money went. When it invited a lawyer it retained in France, William Bourdon, to come to Malaysia last year to help gather evidence, he was deported for misusing his visa.
But in mid-March two French judges, Roger Le Loire and Serge Tournaire, announced they would be hearing the case at the Paris Tribunal de Grande Instance. This is a civil court, but criminal hearings will also take place, in parallel.
French police began their own preliminary inquiries two years ago.
Cynthia Gabriel, one of three directors of Suaram, who flew to Paris to direct the NGO’s case for a hearing from the French courts, tells The Weekend Australian the judges confirmed they would issue subpoenas for those whose testimony was deemed important. She anticipates this will include Najib, while admitting “there’s no way to compel them”.
If the court chooses to extend via the European courts the boundaries for serving the subpoenas, she says, it may make holidays anywhere in Europe awkward, if those subpoenaed appear not to take the process seriously. And Baginda is living in Europe, in Britain.
Gabriel says: “There’s a huge moral obligation to be on the side of the truth” – to which an electoral burden is being added as the poll approaches. “Doing away with corruption and upholding good governance are important for many voters.”
They took the case to France because, she says, Malaysia’s own official anti-corruption agency had refused to open an investigation into it, fearing, she believes, the political ramifications. “There is a widespread belief that the Malaysian courts are being protective” of the powers that be.
Suaram is the plaintiff in the civil hearing in France.
“Our principal aim is to claim compensation on behalf of the Malaysian and French taxpayers for the money they have lost,” Gabriel says.
The French inquiries are already making headway, she says, with company officials under questioning about the submarine contract.
She says it appeared Perimekar had been formed in Malaysia purely to receive the $145m, for which no apparent services were provided.
“The court will be investigating who that money was paid to and for what purpose,” she says. “That might prove to be the tip of the iceberg; it might discover other payments too.”
Documents can be more readily obtained in France through freedom of information legislation, she says, while in Malaysia access is often blocked.
“Interest within Malaysia is very, very high,” Gabriel says, “and has been so since the murder of Altantuya. There remain more questions than answers about the whole case.”
At the previous election, UMNO scored its worst result since 1969.
But Malaysians are in a frisky mood. If the French judges hand down their verdict before the election, even Najib’s artful liberalisations and handouts may not be able to protect his party and its coalition partners from a historic defeat. — The Australian