Thursday, March 29, 2007

Murdered Mistress Becomes Who dun it For Malaysia Elite

On the evening of Oct. 19, as Malaysia's Muslims broke the Ramadan fast, a slender Mongolian woman was forced into a unmarked car in an upscale suburb hereand driven away.Hours later, two bullets were shot into her skull.
Then, thenaked body of 28-year-old Altantuya Shaariibuu was blown apartwith military-grade C-4 explosives and abandoned in the tropicaljungle.What has happened since is sending tremors through Malaysia'spolitical establishment. The investigation into Ms. Shaariibuu'sdisappearance has implicated close associates of the country'ssecond most-powerful politician, Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Najib Abdul Razak. A key political adviser willgo on trial in June on charges of abetting the murder. Twomembers of Mr. Najib's security detail have been charged withcarrying it out. The connection has propelled this Mongolian murder mystery ontothe center stage of Malaysian politics, calling into questionthe near-certainty that Mr. Najib will succeed current PrimeMinister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
The upcoming trial is also viewed as a barometer of how farMalaysia has opened up in the three years since Mr. Abdullahreplaced his more authoritarian predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, and began relaxing restrictions on political debate, the mediaand the courts.

"This murder case is very important -- it is a test, not just of Najib, but also of Abdullah's integrity and leadership," saysformer deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, who was imprisoned onsodomy charges after falling out with Dr. Mahathir in 1998, andwas cleared under the current premier.

The scandal has touchedoff a feeding frenzy in Malaysia's press and blogosphere, andnow opposition leaders like Mr. Anwar are riding a wave of popular outrage over the murder ahead of national elections,expected later this year.A nation of 25 million people with one of Asia's most dynamiceconomies, Muslim-majority Malaysia is an important U.S. ally inthe war against Islamic radicalism. It is often cited as anexample of moderate, open-minded Islam. One of the most eloquent spokesmen for that vision was Abdul Razak Baginda, 47, a confidante of Mr. Najib and head of theMalaysian Strategic Research Center, a political think tank thatworked closely with the Malaysian government.

A British-educated military scholar who was named a "Global Leader for Tomorrow" by the World Economic Forum in Davos, Mr. Razak was also involvedin military procurement deals, helping negotiate Malaysia's 2002purchase of French submarines.At a party in Hong Kong's posh Peninsula Hotel in 2004, he met Ms. Shaariibuu. Raised in St. Petersburg, Russia, and educatedin Beijing, the petite Mongolian was part of the internationaljet set. She used her fluency in Russian, English, Chinese andJapanese to work as a freelance interpreter, according to herfather and sister.In an affidavit submitted in the murder case, Mr. Razak -- whois married and has a teenage daughter -- said that hisacquaintance with Ms. Shaariibuu quickly turned into an illicitaffair. The two traveled together on romantic trips toSingapore, Shanghai and Paris. Mr. Razak also said in theaffidavit that he had made cash payments of $10,000 to Ms.Shaariibuu, whose two young sons reside in Mongolia, "three orfour times," and had wired her money on other occasions.

According to the affidavit and attached transcripts of hisinitial statements to the police, Mr. Razak broke off the affaira year later. He said he thought Ms. Shaariibuu was being"manipulative" and distrusted her tales of financial woe. That'swhen he said Ms. Shaariibuu turned from lover to blackmailer,demanding cash in exchange for silence about his "secrets."Mr. Razak said he paid up at first. But by April 2006, he wasfed up and severed contact, according to the affidavit.Ms. Shaariibuu was undeterred: She tried to meet Mr. Razak inKuala Lumpur in August, and again in October, according to theaffidavit and her relatives.

Before leaving Mongolia the lasttime she told her father that she was involved in a businessventure that would make her enough money for the rest of herlife, her father said.
On Oct. 9, accompanied by two Mongolian friends, Ms. Shaariibuuturned up at Mr. Razak's office at the Strategic ResearchCenter. Guards turned her away, and she threatened to make ascene at his home, according to Mr. Razak's affidavit.At this point, Mr. Razak said he resorted to his connections inthe office of Deputy Prime Minister Najib. Malaysia's Muslimsare governed by Islamic family law, and an adultery scandalinvolving a prominent member of the ruling elite was bound toembarrass the government.On Oct. 16, Mr. Razak said in his affidavit, he explained hispredicament to Mr. Najib's personal aide-de-camp, Musa Safri, ahigh-ranking security officer. According to the affidavit, Mr.Razak had gotten to know Mr. Musa while carrying out officialwork for the deputy prime minister. Two days after thatconversation, Mr. Musa dispatched to Mr. Razak's think tank anofficer from the special VIP security unit entrusted withprotecting Mr. Najib and Prime Minister Abdullah -- Malaysia'sequivalent of the White House Secret Service detail.The officer, Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri, was head of Mr.Najib's personal security team, according to Mr. Azilah'slawyer.

Mr. Azilah established his credentials by declaring thathe had "personally killed between six and 10 people," and thathe could easily "finish off the girl," Mr. Razak alleged in hisaffidavit. (Mr. Azilah's lawyer has disputed the affidavit anddenies his client had made such statements.)Mr. Razak recalled in the affidavit that he was "shocked" at Mr.Azilah's murder claim and replied that he merely needed policeprotection. Nevertheless, Mr. Razak gave Mr. Azilah detailsabout Ms. Shaariibuu, including the name of the hotel where shewas staying.The following day, at about 7 p.m., as Mr. Razak was breakingthe Ramadan fast with his wife and daughter in the Kuala LumpurHilton, Ms. Shaariibuu appeared, accompanied by two Mongolian friends, outside the gate of his residence.

According to the affidavit, staff at Mr. Razak's house alertedhim to her arrival. Ms. Shaariibuu was told to return later inthe evening -- alone. When she did, Mr. Razak said he called Mr.Azilah, the affidavit said.Mr. Azilah, according to the affidavit, soon arrived at Mr.Razak's residence in an unmarked car, accompanied by a fellowofficer from the VIP unit and a female police constable. Theyshoved Ms. Shaariibuu inside and took her away, according towitness statements. She was never seen alive in public again.At some point that night, according to the affidavit, Mr. Azilahcalled Mr. Razak with a message: "Tonight, Sir, you can sleepwell."Mr. Razak bumped into Mr. Musa, Mr. Najib's aide-de-camp, at thedeputy prime minister's office the following day, and asked whathad happened to the Mongolian woman. According to Mr. Razak'saffidavit, Mr. Musa replied then and in later meetings that hehad not been updated by Mr. Azilah. (Mr. Musa, who hasn't beencharged with any crime, didn't respond to requests for comment.)Ms. Shaariibuu's disappearance didn't go unnoticed. Her father,Setev, a filmmaker and psychology professor at Mongolia's StateUniversity, arrived in Kuala Lumpur to look for her. Alerted byMs. Shaariibuu's two Mongolian friends and initially assumingthat she had been arrested, he contacted Malaysian police.

They quickly found witnesses of the Oct. 19 kidnapping, carried outin plain sight outside Mr. Razak's home.Interrogations of Mr. Razak then led to Mr. Azilah and hisfellow VIP unit officer, who had to be recalled from a missionprotecting Prime Minister Abdullah in Pakistan. Eventually, theinvestigators came upon a jungle clearing outside Kuala Lumpur,where charred bone fragments were found on Nov. 6.Subsequent DNA testing, made with the assistance of Ms.Shaariibuu's father, confirmed that these were indeed theMongolian woman's remains.A week later, Mr. Azilah and the fellow VIP unit officer, SirulAzhar Umar, were charged with murder, Mr. Razak with abettingthem. All three have pleaded not guilty and are being heldwithout bail. They face the death penalty if convicted. Thefemale constable hasn't been charged.Attorneys for the two VIP unit officers dispute Mr. Razak'saffidavit, which was submitted as part of a failed bailapplication in late January. Mr. Azilah, his lawyer insists, wassimply doing his job.

"My client is a senior-ranking officer inthe special unit of the police, and he has always acted oninstructions -- including in this case," says the attorney,Zulkifli Noordin.

Mr. Zulkifli declined to say who issued these instructions.After Ms. Shaariibuu was spirited away from Mr. Razak's house,his client took her to the national police headquarters incentral Kuala Lumpur for interrogation, Mr. Zulkifli said. Whathappened after that, Mr. Zulkifli will not yet say. TheMalaysian police have declined to comment while the case is incourt.As newly emboldened Malaysian newspapers first reported thearrests of Mr. Razak and the two officers late last year, thepolice tried to halt the coverage and briefly detained fivelocal reporters. Opposition politicians like Mr. Anwar, theformer deputy premier, cried coverup. Prime Minister Abdullahhimself stepped in, ordering a thorough investigation andassuring fellow Malaysians that "nobody is above the law."Unlike Mr. Abdullah, his deputy, Mr. Najib, has kept silent sofar, ignoring demands of opponents that he explain any personalrole in this drama.

The spotlight on Mr. Najib, however, islikely to intensify once the actual murder trial begins. ComeJune, the chairman of Malaysia's biggest opposition party,Karpal Singh, will be waiting to pounce in that courtroom --as the attorney representing Ms. Shaariibuu's family

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