Malaysian police accused of murder in military kick-back case freed

Release of officers jailed for murdering Mongolian model in military kick-back scandal has activists calling for new probe into the case

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 August, 2013, 3:16am


A Malaysian court yesterday overturned a 2009 murder conviction for two police officers in a scandal that has fascinated the nation and which critics linked to Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Azilah Hadri and Sirul Azhar Umar were convicted of the 2006 killing of Mongolian national Altantuya Shaariibuu, a 28-year-old model and interpreter at the centre of allegations of huge kickbacks in a government purchase of French submarines, supposedly brokered by her well-connected lover.

It's a completely shocking verdict. This really calls now for a full and thorough investigation into her death. Who killed her?
Cynthia Gabriel, a member of human rights group Suaram

The pair of elite officers, onetime bodyguards for Najib, were accused of shooting Altantuya then blowing up her body at the behest of her married boyfriend, Abdul Razak Baginda, a lobbyist with close ties to Najib.

Their acquittal led activists to call for an independent inquiry to reopen the case into who killed the woman and her link, if any, to the submarine deal.

Defence lawyer Hazman Ahmad said yesterday that "justice has been done". "Both the accused have been acquitted and discharged. They are free men now," he said.

Prosecutors said the government would appeal the decision.

Government critics have long alleged that the two men, members of the police unit that guards top ministers, were the fall guys in the killing to hide the involvement of their masters at the highest levels of government.

A three-judge appeals panel ruled that a lower court had erred, for example failing to connect the men to the explosives that were used to blow up the victim's body in a jungle clearing outside Kuala Lumpur, the news portal Malaysian Insider said.

The two officers acknowledged during their trial that they picked up Altantuya from outside Abdul Razak's house. The prosecution alleged they then took her to a jungle clearing and killed her.

Both denied murdering her. Azilah Hadri said he handed her over to his colleague, Sirul Azhar Umar, and never saw her again. During the trial, Sirul insisted he was "just a scapegoat who has to be sacrificed to cover up the ill intentions of those who were not in court".

The decision to free the officers triggered an immediate reaction on Malaysian social media with many calling it part of a conspiracy offering freedom in return for their silence.

Cynthia Gabriel, a member of opposition-leaning human rights group Suaram, called for an independent inquiry to question all those implicated, including the prime minister.

"It's a completely shocking verdict," she said. "This really calls now for a full and thorough investigation into her death. Who killed her?

"I think the justice system is not ready to deal with all the elements of this case."

Najib has vehemently denied any involvement in the affair, but the government has repeatedly ignored calls for a probe.

At the request of Suaram, French judicial officials opened an investigation in March 2010 into the sale of the two submarines, which were made by French shipbuilder giant DCNS. The inquiry is ongoing.

The case stems from charges that Abdul Razak arranged kickbacks in the US$1.1-billion purchase of the submarines in 2002. His former close associate Najib was defence minister at the time.

Altantuya had reportedly been involved in negotiations over the purchase. Abdul Razak, who was acquitted in 2008 and is no relation to the prime minister, was charged with ordering the two officers to kill her after she allegedly harassed him for a cut of the kickbacks.