by Amanda Hodge
FEBRUARY 20, 2016
Ten years ago the murder of a glamorous Mongolian translator with links to Malaysia’s highest political office set off a chain of events that is now reverberating uncomfortably through Australia’s halls of power.
On October 19, 2006, Altantuya Shaaribuu, a translator and 28-year-old mother of two, was abducted by two Malaysian police commandos from outside the Kuala Lumpur home of her former lover, Razak Abdul Baginda, a close confidante of then defence minister Najib Razak and a key mediator in a multi-billion-dollar submarine defence deal.
Sirul Azhar Umar and Azilah Hadri, both bodyguards with an elite protection force for Malaysia’s top leaders, drove Shaaribuu to the Shah Alam forest on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, where she was shot twice in the head and her body blown apart with C4 explosives.
At his trial in Malaysia, Sirul — who is now being held in Sydney’s Villawood Immigration Detention Centre after fleeing to Australia — insisted he had no personal motive for wanting Shaaribuu dead and was acting under orders. “I am a black sheep who has to be sacrificed to protect unnamed people,” he tearfully told the court.
Shaaribuu’s murder has become one of Malaysia’s most notorious crimes thanks to the political intrigue and murky networks of patronage and corruption it has always threatened to expose.
Australia’s role in this case remains largely under-investigated and the government has done little to clarify its position. How, for instance, was Sirul Azhar Umar — a man convicted, then acquitted of one of Malaysia’s most notorious murders — able to slip into Australia on a tourist visa in October 2014, even as an appeal of that acquittal was being heard in Malaysia’s highest court?
Three months after his arrival, Malaysia’s federal court upheld his conviction and death penalty and he was taken into custody by Australian immigration officials on an Interpol red notice. He has been held in detention ever since.
But a more pressing question being asked this week is how Sirul, a man Australia’s Border Force admits has been placed under the highest protection within Villawood, could have made, and in recent weeks leaked to Malaysian media, three video statements which his migration consultant believes have all but ruined any chance he had of an Australian Protection Visa.
“A lot of people in Malaysia are asking ‘How was that possible? How do you do that in detention without the knowledge of authorities?’” says Ram Karpal Singh, a Malaysian opposition MP and lawyer representing Shaaribuu’s father in a civil case against her murderers, her former boyfriend and the Malaysian government.
In those videos Sirul denies that Shaaribuu, for whose murder he has twice now been convicted and sentenced to death for, was pregnant or that the child was fathered by a “certain person”, as had been previously implied.
Sensationally for those now circling embattled Prime Minister Najib, Sirul specifically exonerates the Malaysian leader of any link to the crime, raising — as another lawyer observed this week — a “Pandora’s box of suspicions”.
“I understand that it is the intention of certain quarters with vested interests to topple a certain someone,” says Sirul in the third video late last month.
“I state here … in God’s name … the most honourable Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak was never involved and had no links to the case.”
In a promised fourth video Sirul was to name five prominent people who tried to coerce him into linking Najib to the case. It has not yet emerged and some suspect it never will, given how the first three have backfired.
The videos could not have come at a more explosive time in Malaysian politics.
Najib is battling serious corruption allegations over multi-billion-dollar losses to the 1MDB state investment fund, including $US681 million transferred to his own personal accounts, and an official French investigation into whether kickbacks were paid by a French defence company to win a submarine contract with the Malaysian government while Najib was defence minister.
Najib and Baginda are understood to have been named in judicial documents related to the case, though both have denied any wrongdoing.
Papers reportedly retrieved from Shaaribuu’s hotel room after her murder suggest she may have been blackmailing Baginda for refusing to pay her a $US500,000 fee she claimed she was promised. It has been widely speculated that Shaaribuu worked as a translator on the deal and was killed because of what she knew about the kickbacks.
Baginda was acquitted of abetting her murder in 2008. He admits he received $45m for his services in brokering the submarine deal but denies passing any of that money to Malaysian officials.
Two years after Shaaribuu’s death a second theory emerged from allegations made by a private investigator, P Balasubramaniam, hired by Baginda in 2006 to keep his ex-girlfriend away from his family.
Furious at the prosecution’s failure to ask pertinent questions of him during the trial, Balasubramaniam signed a statutory declaration in July 2008 declaring Baginda had told him Shaaribuu was previously in a relationship with Najib. Not 24 hours later he recanted those allegations and fled Malaysia.
But Balasubramaniam returned in February 2013 to campaign for the political opposition, declaring he had signed the second statement under duress and that his original allegations were all true. He died a month later of a heart attack.
Najib has consistently denied ever meeting Shaaribuu, or any involvement in her death.
Whether or not those behind Sirul’s video retractions last month thought they were doing the Malaysian Prime Minister a favour, the net effect has been to thrust the issue back into the spotlight at a most inconvenient time for Najib.
If the reappearance of this case was unwelcome within Malaysia’s political elite, it may also have provoked reaction in Canberra, where the embattled Najib is still seen as an important regional ally and a friend who once offered a solution to Australia’s asylum-seeker problem.
Australian Border Force — now facing difficult questions over why a convicted murderer sentenced to death in Malaysia and being held in Australian detention should be allowed a platform to make such politically charged statements — says it has analysed the videos and believes they were filmed before Sirul’s incarceration.
The Weekend Australian understands that Border Force believes the backdrop to the video does not exist in Villawood, and that there is no evidence Sirul brought either the clothes or the watch he was wearing during the video into detention.
However, people with knowledge of the case, and Malay speakers who have heard the video, say Sirul’s own statements strongly indicate they were made from detention.
“It’s total rubbish,” says eminent Malaysian barrister Americk Singh Sidhu, who represented Balasubramaniam when he wrote his first statement, and last month launched a legal challenge against the Attorney-General’s decision to close the case on Najib’s so-called $US681m Saudi “gift”.
“It’s only logical the video was done sometime in early January because in it he refers to his lawyers’ press conference where they mentioned his protection visa.”
In a December 31 press conference in Kuala Lumpur, Sirul’s Malaysian lawyers alleged certain people had tried to visit Sirul in detention in the hope of gaining political advantage.
But in April last year, before Australian Border Force took over management of Villawood from the Immigration Department and tightened security, one of Sirul’s lawyers also told Malaysian media his client feared the intervention of politicians — including Mahathir Mohamad — in his case could jeopardise his chances of staying in Australia.
At least two close political allies of Mahathir, Khairuddin Abu Hassan and MP Mahfuz Omar, had already tried to see Sirul in detention.
In his video, Sirul says he wants to expand on his lawyers’ recent statements, and then says he is still being contacted by certain parties wanting to sabotage “someone”.
“My lawyers have explained that there are immigration and legal processes under way here,” he says. “I want to concentrate my energy and time on those processes and my application which would allow me to stay here.”
The Weekend Australian has had the videos translated by two different sources, both of whom confirmed the wording.
The fourth promised video might settle the question of when they were filmed but it is now unlikely to come out.
Sirul’s migration consultant Robert Chelliah told The Weekend Australian this week that if he was among the five named he would be forced to reveal the extent of access Malaysian officials have had to Sirul in Villawood and the nature of conversations between himself, Sirul and his Malaysian lawyers in order to protect his professional integrity.
The man most widely tipped to be named is former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir, to whom Sirul’s mother turned last year for help on behalf of her son.
Mahathir has been Najib’s most vocal critic since the 1MDB scandal escalated last year. Earlier this month Mahathir’s son was forced to step down as chief minister of Kedah, citing pressure from the Prime Minister.
This week the border force revealed senior officials were personally vetting all Sirul’s visitors at Villawood Detention Centre, with full security screenings and intelligence checks, out of concern for his safety.
Sirul enjoys a rare double room to himself in Dormitory Three of Villawood’s Blaxland Unit, with his own computer, phone and access to a kitchen.
Border Force says it has taken the extraordinary measures for fear Sirul could be harmed or threatened by officers from Malaysia’s Special Branch intelligence agency.
Those concerns provoked an outraged response on Thursday from Malaysia’s top policeman, Khalid Abu Bakar, who said: “There is no reason for us to harm or threaten (Sirul). This is absurd.”
Notwithstanding that reassurance, Sirul retains the services in Australia of a solicitor, barrister, and migration consultant, all of whom were — at least until last month — working towards keeping him in Australia.
Also on his team are two Malaysian lawyers who represented him during his 159-day trial, and his appeal, and continue to do so from Kuala Lumpur and, occasionally, Sydney.
A Sydney-based, Malaysian-born “clerk” also attends to Sirul’s financial affairs, including the needs of his teenage son, who lives in Sydney.
This expensive support team has led to questions about how an out-of-work Malaysian policeman can afford such services.
Who is footing Sirul’s bill? It’s a question one might reasonably expect Australian authorities to ask, given their concerns over his vulnerability to coercion.
But neither Immigration Minister Peter Dutton nor Foreign Minister Julie Bishop will comment on the case while Sirul’s protection visa is being processed.
The Weekend Australian has been told by one member of Sirul’s team that all the Australian fees are paid through his Malaysian lawyers, two men with well-known ties to Najib’s UMNO ruling party.
Last year an Al Jazeera documentary on the crime uncovered text messages on a mobile phone used by Sirul in Australia before his arrest, revealing negotiations with an apparent middleman “Salam”. In them Sirul demands $17m to “not bring down the PM”.
Salam responds by text: “They want to discuss”.
The same Queensland-based relative of Sirul’s who showed Al Jazeera the phone messages last year confirmed to The Weekend Australian that Sirul told him he was expecting a $17m payout.
The timing of the Australian government’s heightened concern for Sirul’s welfare last year was sparked apparently not by a visit from shadowy Malaysian intelligence agencies but by Sirul’s mother, sister, and at least one Malaysian opposition MP.
Border Force officials told The Australian last November they found out about the visit after the fact and were concerned its purpose was to encourage Sirul to return to Malaysia where he faces death by hanging, though it is difficult to see how that would benefit Malaysia’s political opposition or indeed Sirul’s immediate family.
But the crackdown on Sirul’s visits also came after he gave interviews to Australian and Malaysian journalists in which he repeated that he had acted under orders, and said “important people with motive (to want Shaaribuu dead) are still free”.
Sirul remains a potential diplomatic thorn in the side of two countries whose recent close relationship has been forged out of the Malaysian Airlines tragedies and a critical need to find moderate Islamic bulwarks in the region against a growing threat of transnational terrorism.
One source with close knowledge of the case told The Weekend Australian: “Sirul knows if he goes back to Malaysia he’s dead. That is why in the recordings he talks of wanting to stay here.
“His lawyers have taken advantage of him by telling him ‘say these things and it will help your case’, but as anyone can see what he has actually done is undermine it. This sort of public announcement is clearly meant for other purposes.”
In an article published online last Sunday by news site Malaysiakini, Americk Sidhu suggests Sirul is being played as a pawn by more powerful forces.
“Your Australian lawyers and your migration consultant have advised you to reveal the person or persons who gave you those orders. You were about to do this until a hurriedly gathered posse of advisers from Malaysia (including apparently three Special Branch officers) descended on Villawood to persuade you otherwise.”
The article predicted Sirul’s legal impasse would be resolved only by a successful appeal for clemency.
It is not known whether Sirul’s lawyers have lodged an appeal.
But days before his first video was released last month, lawyers for Azilah Hadri, the second police officer convicted of Shaaribuu’s murder and now sitting on death row in Malaysia, lodged a clemency appeal with the Selangor Pardons Board.
Should it succeed, it could well improve Sirul’s chances of having his own death sentence commuted, clearing the way for his extradition to Malaysia and neatly solving an awkward dilemma for two countries with one blow.