Thursday, July 8, 2010

Ghost of Mongolian model continues to haunt Malaysian government

By Jonathan Manthorpe, Vancouver Sun

The ghost of murdered Mongolian model and translator Altantuya Shaariibuu refuses to lie quiet.

For the Malaysian government of prime minister Najib Tun Razak a line appeared to have been drawn under the sordid and politically explosive affair when two of his bodyguards from his days as defence minister were convicted last year of the young woman's murder in the jungle outside Kuala Lumpur in October 2006.

But in the last few weeks two events have revived simmering questions about the connection of the murder to a $1.2 billion contract to buy two French Scorpene-class diesel submarines ordered while Najib was defence minister.

Najib's friend and adviser on defence matters, Abdul Razak Baginda, whose wife's company was paid a questionable $150 million over the submarine contract, had recently brought a love affair with Shaariibuu to an acrimonious end when she was abducted and murdered.

During the months' long trial of the two police bodyguards every effort was made to ensure prime minister Najib's name didn't figure in evidence.

And in a move that astonished legal experts, the judge early on in the trial exonerated Baginda of any responsibility. He promptly fled to Britain where he remains.

The stage management of the trial convinced Malaysian human rights groups that it would be pointless to try to resolve the Shaariibuu case in the senior courts in Kuala Lumpur.

One of those Malaysian human rights groups, Suaram, has therefore pressed for a judicial inquiry in France, where there are a number of investigations underway of the notorious willingness of state-owned defence companies to pay bribes or other inducements in order to gain arms contracts.

In this case Parisian prosecutors started inquiries in March focusing on the $150 million paid to a Malaysian company called Perimekar, which was set up just before Najib signed in 2002 the deal to buy the two Scorpene submarines from the French state-owned shipbuilder DCN.

Perimekar was ostensibly hired to provide "coordination and support services" for the contract, but no evidence has been produced to show the company had the skills for such tasks or ever attempted to perform them.

Perimekar is a wholly-owned subsidiary of a company called KS Ombak Laut Sdn Bhd., whose principal shareholder is lawyer Mazalinda Baginda, the wife of prime minister Najib's friend and adviser Razak Baginda.

Shaariibuu, 28 at the time of her death, had learned French when she was a model in Paris and there is evidence she acted as translator for her paramour Baginda during his negotiations with DCN over the submarines on behalf of Najib and the Malaysian government.

Malaysian authorities have responded to the move by French prosecutors to investigate DCN and particularly its submarine-manufacturing subsidiary Armaris, for possible corruption and paying kickbacks by insisting nothing is wrong.

A spokesman for prime minister Najib said recently the French prosecutors have the right to investigate, "but for us, there is no case to answer." He added that the deal was entirely free of corruption.

Exactly why Shaariibuu was murdered by Najib's bodyguards has never been entirely resolved, despite the long trial and 45 witnesses.

By some accounts, after Baginda jilted her, the young woman and a friend launched several noisy demonstrations outside Baginda's house.

Baginda reportedly went to Najib's chief of staff, Musa Safri, and asked for help in keeping the young woman away from his home.

As a result, the two police bodyguards, Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri and Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar, abducted Shaariibuu during one of her demonstrations, took her to the jungle outside the capital and shot her.

But they then used military C4 explosives to blow up the body in an apparent attempt to foil identification, though this act has, of course, led to speculation that Shaariibuu was pregnant.

But in a letter written by Shaariibuu and discovered after her death -a letter never produced in evidence -she indicated she was trying to blackmail Baginda for $500,000 to keep quiet about the details of the $150 million paid to his wife's company, Perimekar.

There have also been suggestions that Shaariibuu knew details of the many other arms purchases made in the military equipment buildup overseen by Najib while he was defence minister from 2002 to 2008.

These deals include the purchase of Sukhoi supersonic fighter jet aircraft from Russia and of a small fleet of coastal defence vessels.

As well as Malaysian human rights organizations, Shaariibuu's parents have been adamant that there has been no real justice for their murdered daughter.

With the stage-managed criminal trial now done, Shaariibuu's father and mother have tried to bring a civil suit seeking compensation for her death against Baginda and the two convicted policemen.

In a strange move, Malaysia's High Court in March ordered the family to make a security deposit of the equivalent of $20,000 for the case to be heard by the Court of Appeal and potentially to continue to the Federal Court.

The family was distraught, saying it could not raise such a sum.

But last week The Mongolian government announced it will put up the security bond demanded by the Malaysian court so the case can be heard, though at this point it seems more likely that Shaariibuu's ghost will get justice in Paris rather than Kuala Lumpur.


jmanthorpe@vancouversun.com

Vancouver Sun

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