Politically charged murder trial under way in Malaysia

Monday, June 18, 2007

A trial in the murder of Mongolian-born model and interpreter Altantuya Shaaribuu got under way today in Shah Alam, Malaysia, with a former adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak as one of the defendants.

The prosecutor said political consultant Abdul Razak Baginda, 47, plotted the October 19, 2006, murder with two police officers, Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri and Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar, who fatally shot Altantuya, and then blew her body up with C-4 in an attempt to get rid of the evidence.

The sequence of events would be pieced together by testimonies of witnesses who saw Altantuya taken from Abdul Razak's house, closed-circuit television footage and telephone records, deputy public prosecutor Abdul Majid said in his opening remarks.

"Several items belonging to the deceased have also been seized by the police from Sirul Azhar. [We] will show that the items belonged to the deceased through identification by prosecution witnesses and DNA tests, prosecutors told the court," he said.

"Besides that, a pair of bloodstained slippers had been found in Sirul Azhar's car and analysis by the Chemistry Department had confirmed through DNA tests that the blood was Altantuya's," Abdul Majid said.

Abdul Razak has admitted he had an affair with the 28-year-old Altantuya, who was born in Mongolia, and schooled in Russia and France. She was a part-time model and also worked as an interpreter and translator, as she was fluent in Mongolian, Russian, French and English. Abdul Razak has said he met Altantuya in Hong Kong in 2004, and they had a short-lived extramarital affair. After he ended it, Altantuya went to Malaysia and threatened Abdul Razak with blackmail.

Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has denied any links to the murder case.

After that, prosecutors say, Abdul Razak contacted Azilah, who was head of Deputy Premier Najib's security detail, and that Abdul Razak "abetted" the two policemen "by planning and giving instructions to get rid of her by killing her".

Abdul Razak, Azilah and Sirul Azul were brought into court handcuffed and made to sit in a dock.

Before entering, the tearful Abdul Razak hugged his wife who was wearing a T-shirt that said "Mrs. Abdul Razak Baginda" on the front, with "And Proud of It" on the back.

The politically charged trial has been a sensation in the Malaysian media, and is one of the biggest political scandals since former deputy prime minister and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was jailed on charges of corruption and sodomy. Supporters of Anwar, who was released from prison in 2004, forced Najib to vehemently deny allegation that he was linked to the murder.

The trial has also been beset by delays.

Today, lawyer Karpal Singh, representing Altantuya's family, asked that the judge and a defense lawyer be replaced because they distantly related by marriage. Judge Mohammad Zaki Mohammad Yasin denied the request, saying his third cousin is dead and he has "no personal interest whatsoever" in the case. Defense lawyer Hazman Ahmed's late wife was the third cousin of the judge.

The trial had been scheduled to start on June 4, but was postponed after the attorney general abruptly replaced the prosecutor after he was seen playing badminton with the judge. The new prosecutor then needed more time to study the case.