Buffeted by charges of massive corruption, embezzlement and money-laundering related to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) financial scandal, Malaysia’s ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak could soon face charges of an altogether different sort: murder
Persistent rumors of his alleged links to several high-profile murder cases during his tenure have prompted renewed calls for authorities to open fresh probes into a string of grisly killings of which Najib has always steadfastly denied any knowledge or association.
In a recent tit-for-tat exchange with veteran parliamentarian Lim Kit Siang, Najib appeared to welcome calls for the murder cases to be reopened and for special inquiries to be formed, declaring that it was time for “justice to be served” after bearing the brunt of what he says are slanderous accusations linking him with the killings.
“It is now time for justice to be served to me, the victims’ families, and to give room to all the Malaysian people who have accused and defamed me to regret what they have hurled,” the former premier said in a Facebook post earlier this month while accusing the Pakatan Harapan government and their “propaganda experts” of disparaging him.
Najib had responded to earlier comments by Lim that Malaysians would overwhelmingly demand a re-opening of investigations if the issue was put to a referendum. The ex-premier declared he would ask his personal assistant to lodge a police report regarding accusations linking him to the murders in order to prompt new investigations.
Calling the move “the last resort” to clear his name, Najib directed an aide to lodge a police report urging authorities to investigate Lim’s remarks. Inspector General of Police Mohamad Fuzi Harun has said investigations would be conducted according to normal procedures and that police would, if necessary, call the politicians involved.
Malaysians are now waiting with bated breath to see what happens next. Lim’s calls to reopen probes followed reports earlier this month that S Ravi Chandaran, an accused on trial for the September 2015 murder of deputy public prosecutor Kevin Morais, testified that Najib had offered him 3.5 million ringgit (US$841,000) to confess to the killing.
He claimed Najib’s offer was made through a prison officer earlier this year. Chandaran and five other suspects are on trial for the murder of Morais, 55, while R Kunaseegaran, a government pathologist the victim had been prosecuting for corruption, has been charged with abetment. All have pled not guilty to the charges; their trial is set to continue on October 26.
According to evidence presented in court, a group of men abducted Morais in broad daylight as he commuted to work, ramming his vehicle from behind. His body was found 12 days later inside a cement-filled oil drum that was discovered in a swamp on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Scrapings on his fingers suggest he was still alive as he was forced into a fetal position inside the barrel.
Charles Morais, the victim’s brother, claims Kevin Morais had been responsible for drawing up a charge sheet against Najib on behalf of the former Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail, who was removed from his post by Najib after it was discovered he was probing possible wrongdoing at 1MDB. Abdul Gani was replaced by Mohamed Apandi Ali, who cleared the former premier of wrongdoing and closed all domestic probes into 1MDB.
Prior to his murder, Morais is believed to have leaked copies of the charge sheet to British investigative journalist Clare Rewcastle-Brown, editor of whistleblower website Sarawak Report. The document spells out charges against Malaysia’s then prime minister in connection with funds misappropriated from SRC International, a former 1MDB unit.
After Najib forced Abdul Gani into retirement on “grounds of health,” he was prevented from even entering his office on the morning of his dramatic dismissal, in an apparent bid to thwart probes into 1MDB. Mohd Shukri Abdull, who led those investigations in 2015, claims he was threatened and even received a bullet in the mail as a warning.
Since July, Najib has been charged with counts of criminal breach of trust, money laundering and abuse of power in connection with US$10.1 million that allegedly flowed from SRC International into his personal bank account. Funds from the unit were funneled through local banking institutions, which enabled investigators to swiftly trace the money trail.
Other murders are also coming into new light. Hussain Najadi, the victim of another high-profile killing, was gunned down by an assassin in the parking lot of a Chinese temple in Kuala Lumpur in July 2013. His son, Pascal Najadi, claims his late father had made a formal complaint to Malaysia’s central bank, Bank Negara, about suspect transfers involving Najib’s private bank accounts at AmBank.
Though retired for three decades, Hussain, 75 years old at the time of his murder, had been the founder and former chairman of AmBank, one of Malaysia’s largest banks. According to his son, Hussain was alarmed by information he had received about 1MDB-linked corruption at the bank he founded and sought a formal investigation into the matter.
Koong Swee Kwan, a car re-possessor who admitted to being hired to execute Hussain, was found guilty and sentenced to death last year. Pascal maintains that Malaysian investigators made no attempt to examine the motive behind the murder, which he believes was ordered by individuals who wanted to silence his father’s corruption complaints.
Perhaps the most infamous killing with curious – though not direct – links to Najib is one that predates his position as prime minister. Altantuya Shaariibuu, 28, a Mongolian model and translator, was murdered in October 2006. She was abducted and driven to a remote jungle clearing on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, where her remains were found.
She was shot twice in the head with a high-powered semi-automatic weapon, after which military-grade explosives were then strapped to her body and detonated. Altantuya was having an affair with Abdul Razak Baginda, a former advisor and close associate of Najib alleged to have been the middlemen in a controversial submarine deal.
Malaysia purchased two French-built Scorpene-class submarines from French shipbuilding giant DCNS in 2002, when Najib headed the defense ministry. A French probe into the deal was launched after Malaysian human rights group Suaram alleged that the sale resulted in some US$125 million of commissions being paid to a company linked to Najib.
Confidential leaked documents from the French probe revealed that Altantuya had been employed as an interpreter and was by Abdul Razak’s side as he negotiated the deal. Her abduction occurred outside Abdul Razak’s home, where she had turned up hours before her death to demand financial commissions she was allegedly promised.
Abdul Razak, who admitted to having a romantic relationship with Altantuya, was charged with abetment in her murder but later acquitted in 2008. Two former police officers from Najib’s security detail, Azilah Hadri and Sirul Azhar Umar, were sentenced to death for carrying out the murder, though their motive has never been established in court.
P Balasubramanian, a private investigator hired by Abdul Razak to protect him against harassment from Altantuya, released an explosive statutory declaration in July 2008 that challenged the standard of investigations conducted by the authorities, as well as the veracity of various statements and denials by Najib regarding his relationship with the victim.
Balasubramanian claimed Najib had introduced Abdul Razak to Altantuya at a diamond exhibition in Singapore and that the two had had a sexual relationship. He requested that Abdul Razak to look after Altantuya and did not want her to “harass him” since he had recently been promoted to deputy prime minister. Najib has denied the allegation.
The private investigator also claimed Abul Razak had shared this information to persuade him to continue his employment. Balasubramanian, a veteran of the Royal Malaysian Police Force, said he was certain that no police officer would execute someone in the manner which Altantuya was killed without receiving specific instructions from their superiors first.
Sirul had asked the court in 2009 not to sentence him to death for Altantuya’s murder, claiming he was “a black sheep that has to be sacrificed” in order to protect unnamed people who had never been brought to court or faced questioning. He was released on bail during an appeal and fled to Australia shortly before his sentence was handed down.
The convicted officer is currently detained at an immigration detention center in Sydney. He has vowed to cooperate with Malaysian authorities by revealing his knowledge of the incident, provided he receives a full pardon. Australia, however, refuses to extradite individuals who face execution by capital punishment.
A recent Cabinet decision to abolish the death penalty in Malaysia and suspend the execution of all death penalties could now pave the way for Sirul’s return. Newly-elected parliamentarian and prime-minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim is among those calling for the convicted officers to face a new trial, with him calling the original ruling “compromised.”
By revisiting high-profile criminal cases that took place under the watch of the previous government, moves that have captured the popular imagination in Malaysia, Mahathir’s administration could simultaneously restore public confidence in a justice system many have long seen as compromised by political interference.