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Altantuya case comes alive again

KUALA LUMPUR: Nearly eight years after her gruesome murder in a jungle clearing, Mongolian translator and party girl Altantuya Shaariibuu is coming back to haunt Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, his wife, Rosmah Mansor, and other members of Najib’s family.

The action is taking place in a 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 PI Bala, to recant a sworn statement tying Najib to the murdered woman.

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The lawyer is Cecil Abraham, a Tan Sri.

Lawyer Americk Sidhu 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. Bala died of a heart attack in March 2013.

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 Bala’s statement have reawakened other questions over a lurid, much bigger drama that has never been finished satisfactorily.

It started on October 18 2006, when two of the then-Defence 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 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 with C4 military explosive and blew it up, possibly to destroy the DNA of the foetus 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 centre 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 that passed through a company owned by Najib’s then-best friend, Abdul Razak Baginda, into Umno’s coffers, according to voluminous documents from a French investigation into the matter.

Altantuya at the time of the finalisation of details on delivery of the submarines was Abdul Razak’s girlfriend although he ditched her later. The French investigation is still going on.

Blackmail

At the time of her death, Altantuya had flown down to Kuala Lumpur to vainly blackmail Abdul Razak for US$500,000, according to a letter she had written that was found later in her hotel room. Abdul Razak hired Bala to attempt to keep her away from him.

During several meetings to discuss what to do about the jilted woman, Abdul Razak allegedly told Bala that Altantuya had been Najib’s girlfriend before she became his because Najib expected to become the prime minister and he couldn’t afford to have an exotic mistress on the side.

Bala’s sworn statement, given to the press on July 3 2008, caused a huge sensation in political circles, although it wasn’t covered in the mainstream press. It also triggered frantic activity on the part of those surrounding Najib to shut Bala up, according to statements he made later and documents filed in court.

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According to a civil suit filed in the Kuala Lumpur High Court on behalf of Bala’s family against eight plaintiffs including Najib, Rosmah and Najib’s brothers Ahmad Johari and Nazim, 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 investigator 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 and Deepak had hustled him out of the country and gave photocopies of cheques he subsequently received, drawn on their accounts.

The charges, however, haven’t gained much traction in this country, where the entire political establishment appears to have been engaged in a ferocious attempt to keep all aspects of the Altantuya case quiet. There is suspicion that even the murder case was rigged to make sure nobody was charged along with Sirul and Azilah.

Abdul Razak had been arrested originally with the two on charges he had asked for their help in getting rid of Altantuya, but he was released without having to put on a defence. 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 but refused to do it.