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Some seriously troubling questions of Altantuya Shaaribuu murder case in Malaysia

An unbelievable spectacle took place in the bizarre murder trial of Mongolian beauty Altantuya Shaaribuu on June 29. Karpal Singh, the lawyer for the victim’s family, attempted to ask a question about a “government official" allegedly seen in a photograph with the victim. At that point, both the prosecutor and the defense lawyer sprang to their feet in unison to block the question.

This resulted in a shouting match, with Singh on one side, the victim’s cousin on the stand, and the combined forces of the prosecution and defense blocking the line of questioning.

Earlier, a similar division of forces occurred when a Mongolian witness – a girlfriend of the victim   told the court that immigration entry computer records of the deceased and her two Mongolian companions, including the witness, had been mysteriously erased. When Singh asked the court to take proper note of this highly irregular event, both the prosecution and defense objected to the evidence as irrelevant, and insisted that it be expunged.

Now, isn't that a strange phenomenon? A prosecutor is supposed to seek justice for the deceased victim's family against the murderers, so how come the prosecutor is now ganging up with defense lawyers to oppose the victim's family lawyer? Is this a case of prosecutor vs. defense or a case of prosecutor plus defense vs. victim's family? Obviously, the prosecution and defense seem to have plenty of common interests. What are those common interests?

The answer may lie in the identity of that "government official" that allegedly appeared in the photograph with Altantuya that both prosecution and defense tried so hard not to allow into court.


The picture
On Day 10 of the trial, Altantuya's cousin Burmaa Oyunchimeg testified that after Altantuya returned from France, she went to Hong Kong to meet Burmaa, and showed her a photograph of Altantuya and her lover, Abdul Razak Baginda, who is accused of conspiring in her murder, and "a government official" taking a meal together. Answering Singh later, after the shouting match in the court had subsided, she said this "government official" was Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak.

She could distinctly remember the name, she said, because it bears a similarity to Altantuya’s acknowledged lover's name, and she even asked Altantuya whether they were brothers. Burmaa further added that the photo had also been shown to Altantuya's father.

Now, the revelation of Najib in the photo would not have caused such a sensation if not for the deputy prime minister's oft-repeated denial of any knowledge of Altantuya, including a public denial during a recent by-election, when even the name of Allah was invoked.

What does Najib have to say now that his denial is directly contradicted by the witness Burmaa? His press secretary Tengku Sarifuddin Tengku Ahmad issued a brief statement on June 30 saying that the deputy prime minister had declined to comment for two reasons. One, any comment might be sub judice, since the case is in court, and, two, Najib had already repeatedly denied an acquaintance with the girl in the past, "as such, the issue over the picture does not arise,” the spokesman said.

Sub judice? That’s ridiculous. How could a simple statement like "I have never had my photo taken with Altantuya" be sub judice? In fact, being the number-two leader in the government, Najib is absolutely duty-bound to say outright whether he was ever photographed with Altantuya, in view of the serious implications of Burmaa's allegation.

The issue over the picture does not arise? Equally ridiculous. In fact, the opposite is true. Precisely because of Najib's past denials, it is all the more imperative that Najib must stand up now to clarify.


Guilty conscience?
There is only one explanation for Najib's past denials and his present silence: A guilty conscience. If Najib's conduct with respect to the case had been above-board, there would be no reason for him to deny an acquaintance with his friend Abdul Razak’s friend Altantuya. Similarly, if the allegation of the picture is false, it is inconceivable and totally incomprehensible that Najib should have chosen not to refute Burmaa's allegation.

In fact, Najib seems so worried about the publicity of the picture that his secretary called editors in the local press and requested them not to blow up the issue. This resulted in the explosive story being absent from the local headlines the next day. (In one Chinese paper – Guang Ming – the Najib story hit the front page in the evening edition, but disappeared completely by the next morning). And of course, Anwar Ibrahim's criticism of the trial and his specific call on Najib to clarify the issue of the picture during a press conference was generally blacked out.

However, despite such new suppression, irreversible damage is done. There is little doubt that Najib is deeply troubled and his political position seriously weakened.

Manipulation
That this murder case has been subjected to serious political manipulation has been obvious from the very start, when the police commenced their highly questionable investigation, right through to the present trial when the conduct of lawyers for both sides appear increasingly dubious. Instead of the prosecutor seeking the truth and the defense lawyer fighting for the accused, both seem preoccupied with an overriding mission – to prevent the whole truth from emerging. Their combined efforts to cover up the issue of the immigration record and the identity of Najib Razak in the picture are just two examples of such conduct.

The highly irregular nature of this case was also marked by frequent and mysterious changes of legal personnel, resulting in a complete change-over of the defense team, the prosecutors and the judge even before the hearings began. These weird phenomena were crowned by the shock appearance of a new team of prosecutors who were appointed only hours before the hearing was supposed to begin, thus necessitating an impromptu postponement of the trial for two weeks. None of these changes of legal personnel has been properly explained, except for the resignation of Abdul Razak’s first lawyer; Zulkifli Noordin, quit, he said, because of "serious interference by third parties".

Under these circumstances, the public must brace itself for more aberrant scenarios from this court, while Najib and his supporters may have to keep their fingers crossed in the days ahead when many more witnesses have yet to walk through what must appear to Najib as a minefield.

On a more serious note, this unseemly trial does not exactly add credit to Malaysia’s system, whose already wretched image has just been further mauled by the shameful finale of another sham trial – that of Eric Chia of Perwaja Steel fame. After seven long years of investigations and three years of court hearings, that case was thrown out due to lack of prima facie evidence. With that, the long-drawn out Perwaja Steel saga ended without finding any culprit for the mountain of losses (more than RM 10 billion) suffered by taxpayers.

There has been a spate of criminal cases being dismissed of late due to inadequate investigations and poor prosecution, indicating that the downward slide of our criminal justice system, which began in the Mahathir era, has gotten worse under Abdullah Badawi's leadership. With the criminal justice system in a shambles, the rule of law is in jeopardy. And that is an important benchmark to judge the efficacy of Abdullah's administration vis-à-vis his reform agenda.

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