Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. April 2016. Text & Photo by Madoka Ikegami, co-written with Norman Aisbett, published at Malaysiakini on October 19, 2016
Today is the 10th anniversary of the grisly murder of Altantuya. Dr Shaariibuu Setev suspects Mongolia, Malaysia and Australia have colluded to mute the politically sensitive case of an ex-Malaysian policeman who murdered his daughter a decade ago and has lately been held in immigration detention in Sydney.
Setev is a university professor of film study in Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia. His eldest daughter, Altantuya Shaariibuu, 28, a globetrotting translator and mother of two sons was killed overnight on Oct 19-20, 2006 by two Malaysian policemen.
She was shot twice in the head before being wrapped in military grade C-4 plastic explosive and blown to pieces in a forest on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. The motive for the crime and the source of the policemen’s orders remain unknown.
The killers, Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri and Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar, were members of an elite police commando unit that provided bodyguards for Malaysia's top leaders, including then Defence Minister Najib Razak, now prime minister.
Sirul has been in Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney for the past 21 months, after he was picked up over an expired tourist visa. Government officials have made no comment when asked if it was unusual for a person to be held for so long over an expired visa. Nor have Australian officials linked - at least not publicly - Sirul’s detention to a murder conviction and death sentence that was unusually passed on him in absentia in Malaysia last year. Australia has a policy embedded in its Migration Act that prevents people being extradited to any country where they would face the death penalty. When asked if the policy is relevant to the case, there has been no official comment.
“It looks like Mongolia, Malaysia and Australia have made a deal to be silent about this case. No-one is making a noise. Isn't it obvious?” an emotional Setev said in his university office.
“The Mongolian government is doing nothing. The Mongolian minister of justice now runs away from me. If he sees me walking through this door, he goes out the other door."
In a message sent on Monday, Setev added that he thought that the three governments were waiting for time to pass so that the case against Sirul could somehow be dropped in the future. When approached earlier, a spokesperson for Australia’s Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton, offered no comment on Setev’s tri-nation “deal” suspicion. The federal Attorney-General, George Brandis, whose office handles extradition matters, did not respond when the same question was sent to him via his staff.
Altanatuya was murdered shortly after flying to Kuala Lumpur to face a married political analyst who reportedly had abruptly ended a romance they started in 2004. The analyst, Abdul Razak Baginda was a friend and confidante of Najib, who has strongly denied ever meeting Altantuya or having any part in her murder.
The trial heard she made numerous failed attempts to see Razak at his home and office. Two days before her murder she angrily called from the street for him to come out of his house. On the evening she died, she returned alone in the belief he would talk to her. Instead, police arrived and took her away – ultimately to her death. Later, in the forest, with Sirul and Azilah, she reportedly pleaded she was pregnant. Setev doubts that, saying “a person can come up with anything to save their life. I see it as her last chance.”
Abdul Razak was later charged with having abetted her murder but was acquitted at trial in 2008 trial because the prosecution did not have a prime facie case. No evidence was given. Sirul and Azilah both pleaded not guilty but were convicted after a 159-day trial, including long adjournments. Sirul’s only read a prepared statement in which he was reported to have tearfully claimed to be “a black sheep who has to be sacrificed” to protect unnamed people.
Both men were acquitted by the Court of Appeal in 2013. Sirul became Australia's problem after he managed to leave Malaysia - his passport had not been confiscated - and enter Australia on a tourist visa in October 2014, just when Malaysia's highest court, the Federal Court, was hearing an appeal against the men’s acquittal.
Three months later, in January 2015, the Federal Court reinstated their convictions and death sentences and Azilah went onto death row. About that time, Sirul was picked up in Queensland, Australia where he was staying with relatives on his tourist visa.
Sirul last year applied for a protection visa to allow him to stay in Australia but officials say privacy issues prevent comment on any such matters.
Rumour has circulated for years that Altantuya died because she tried to capitalise on inside knowledge - gained as a translator - of allegedly corrupt negotiations for Malaysia to buy two French-built submarines, by blackmailing Abdul Razak for US$500,000.
Her family’s Malaysian lawyer, Ramkarpal Singh, rejects the gossip, saying she met Abdul Razak two years after the negotiations, which did not arise during the long murder trial. The story was “full of holes” and could not be connected to the case, Ramkarpal said. According to a report of police testimony by Malaysiakini in 2007, a “disturbed” and “pressured” looking Altantuya went to a police station earlier on the day of her murder to file a self-typed report in which, in broken English, she repeatedly expressed fears for her life.
She wrote, “I’m just a normal girl trying to meet my lover who lied to me and promised many things but now (he) want(s) to put me in jail or kill (me). Only reason I'm here (is) because he ruined my life with lies …but now (he is) trying to scare me and kill me … I really understand he doesn’t love me any more … I want to go back safely." She was dead that night.
Malaysiakini also told in 2007 how the trial heard a letter in her handwriting was found in her hotel room after her death. In it, she admitted having threatened to harm Abdul Razak’s daughter, and regretted having “bothered” and “blackmailed” him, without specifying how. But she also wrote, “I’m (a) nice person. I can’t hurt someone but (Abdul Razak) is a powerful person, he (has) money (and) he (has) connection (to the) police (and the) government… If he didn’t promise me, I would (have) never come from far away to Malaysia.”
Meanwhile, her father, Setev, is further angered by Sirul being held in the relative comfort of immigration detention, instead of in a prison. “Why would they happily keep this murderer there?” he said.
“He has everything he needs … the Internet, phone, (relative) freedom, a kitchen… Imagine a person who is asking to live in your country is sitting next to a murderer. Is it right? Detention centre is not jail.”
In January, Setev asked the National Human Rights Commission of Mongolia to help him have Sirul extradited to Mongolia - where the death penalty was abolished last year - to serve a prison term. The Mongolian body’s letter to Australian Human Rights Commission president, Professor Gillian Triggs, brought a reply that she could do nothing.
Around that time, Mongolia’s state prosecutor told Setev there was no legal possibility for his plan so he abandoned it, but he pressed on “for justice”. On June 15, he hand-delivered to Australian embassy officers in Ulaanbaatar a letter which supported Australia’s stance against the death penalty but argued Sirul should be in a prison. At last report, Canberra had not replied to him.
Meanwhile, Ramkarpal, the family’s lawyer, and also a member of the Malaysia’s opposition Democratic Action Party, says he has raised the question of Sirul’s extradition “many times’ in the parliament and with the attorney-general, who is not in Parliament.
Despite the government’s repeated assurances that it would move to extradite Sirul, it had not yet done so and “there has been no satisfactory explanation for a year now”, Ramkarpal said.
He acknowledged that Australia, due to its death penalty policy, was “extremely unlikely” to extradite Sirul but he believed the Malaysian government was bound by its repeated assurances to try.
Ramkarpal said Sirul’s extradition would require court proceedings in Australia, even if his death sentence had been commuted, and that could be concerning for some parties in Malaysia.
“A lot of things would have to be revealed in extradition proceedings (and) Sirul might disclose matters which have not been disclosed in the past in order to absolve him of the predicament that he faces.
“And perhaps they don’t want him back in Malaysia because he might raise all sorts of allegations in his clemency petition. It’s all speculation.
“Sirul is hopeless. I think he’s lost all credibility. He’s said things which are bizarre to say the least, and if it comes down to a question of believing his credibility, I don’t think he’s going to go very far. (But) anything he said (during extradition proceedings) would make headlines all around the world.”
Ramkarpal said the situation could have been avoided had the Malaysian Federal Court postponed the proceedings which led to Sirul’s re-conviction in January last year. Sirul was an acquitted man up to that point and the court had the power to delay until he returned to Malaysia. And if satisfied he was evading return, it could have issued a warrant for his arrest.
“Now, if that had been the case, there would not have been a conviction or a death sentence against him at that point in time, and the Australians would very likely have sent him back,” Ramkarpal added.
Meanwhile, despite wanting Sirul and Azilah to be punished, Setev does not want them executed. “The death penalty is an irresponsible act,” he said.
“One should feel sorrow for what one does throughout his lifetime. Thus, killing is an act of resting that animal. Killing those two murderers is also the act of getting rid of the witnesses.”