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    Southeast Asia
     Jul 12, 2007
Malaysian justice put on trial
By Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR - A decade after Malaysia's criminal-justice system earned condemnation for allegedly bending the rules to jail a prominent politician who had run afoul of the prime minister, now it is back in the dock and under attack for allegedly stretching the rules in a sensational murder case involving top political figures.

Opposition lawmakers and independent observers are questioning the police investigation into a high-profile murder, the integrity of

the prosecution, and the independence of judges.

At issue is the gruesome murder of 28-year-old Mongolian beauty queen Altantuya Shaariibuu, who was abducted from outside the home of the accused killer, Abdul Razak Baginda. one of the country's best-known political scientists, Baginda is also a top political adviser to Najib Razak, Malaysia's powerful deputy prime minister, and is viewed by many as a potential prime minister.

Altantuya was abducted by two police officers of an elite unit last October 18, according to public prosecutors' opening statements when the trial began last month. The next day, prosecutors said, Altantuya was killed and her body blasted to pieces with C4 explosives in an apparent attempt to eliminate all evidence of the crime.

According to witness testimony, all records of Altantuya's entry and presence in Malaysia were erased from the computers of the Immigration Department. Opposition lawmakers charged that such an erasure is impossible without top-level intervention and are pressing for more information on what they have referred to as "anomalies" in the official police investigation.

In earlier court affidavits, Baginda admitted he had an affair with Altantuya, who was reportedly fluent in French, Russian and Chinese, and was variously referred to as a part-time model and translator. Baginda said he ended the affair, but Altantuya harassed him for money and finally came to Malaysia last October to blackmail him by threatening to inform his wife and teenage daughter of the affair. Witnesses said Altantuya asked for US$500,000 to keep silent.

Baginda also has admitted contacting Najib's aide-de-camp and being introduced to two police officers whom he apparently asked for help in resolving his problem with his ex-mistress. "I never asked them to kill her," Baginda said in the affidavit.

Baginda and two members of the elite Special Forces Command, which provide security to government VIPs, including Najib, whose name has persistently hovered over the crime, are on trial. The investigation has been in the national headlines since November.

The proceedings are being sharply criticized by the political opposition, who have made allegations of a high-level cover-up.

"The entire conduct of the prosecution [was] not meant to seek and find the truth, to catch the culprits who perpetrated the crime, but at all stages, to protect powerful individuals from being implicated in any way," said government critic and former premier Anwar Ibrahim.

"The many twists and turns in the case have raised doubts about the integrity of the prosecution and independence of the judges," he said. "It is sickening, it is pathetic, to say the least."

According to Anwar, those twists include the sudden removal of the presiding judge before the trial started without a plausible explanation to the lawyers. The head of the prosecution team was also changed at the eleventh hour and the reason given - the prosecution leader was seen playing badminton with the judge - was rejected by prominent lawyers. Finally, defense lawyers for the three accused keep changing, with one walking out on the first day of the trial because of unnamed "third parties" who he alleged were interfering in his work.

The last time the prosecution and judiciary were this openly criticized was in 1998, when Anwar was on trial for corruption and sexual misconduct after a falling-out with then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. The Anwar trial, which was widely condemned as a farce, including among international legal experts, severely undermined the Mahathir administration - and it is believed the current trial may have similar consequences for Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi.

Critics say the trial has already undermined public confidence in Abdullah's reformist credentials, crucially when general elections are scheduled to be held within the next 12 months.

Anwar and other opposition politicians allege that there are "credible speculations" that the murder could be connected to internal government rifts over a billion-dollar purchase of two Scorpene submarines from France in 2002. In his capacity as defense minister, Najib negotiated the controversial deal, which opposition politicians, including Anwar, allege was rife with irregularities.

"The government must carry out a complete review of the submarine purchase and how politically connected individuals profited from it," said Lim Guan Eng, secretary general of the opposition Democratic Action Party. "The public is losing confidence."

Answering the various allegations, Najib's office issued a brief statement denying any links between Najib and the murdered Altantuya. "I am innocent ... Allah is my witness," Najib said in the statement. Public doubts intensified, however, after witness testimony last week alleging that the victim had shown her a photograph of herself, Baginda, Najib and "others" having lunch in a Paris restaurant.

Defense lawyers and prosecutors stopped the witness from testifying further. Nor did the court ask the witness, a cousin of the murdered woman, to produce the photograph - a serious lapse in standard legal procedures, according to a senior criminal lawyer following the case, who requested anonymity.

"Public confidence is in tatters and only a complete and in-depth probe into all the circumstances in this murder will satisfy the public," said prominent human-rights lawyer Sivarasah Rasiah. "The world too is watching."

(Inter Press Service)

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