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The Altantuya Shaaribuu Case: How and why she was killed

SHAARIBUU SETEV is a bitter and disappointed man. Yet behind the sad face of this Mongolian lies a fierce determination.



"My daughter has been murdered by Malaysians on Malaysian territory. And they did not even offer a word of apology," states this professor of psychology at the National University of Mongolia.

The murder of his daughter, Altantuya Shaaribuu, took place in October 2006. Everything in this case - which started in 2002 when the French-Spanish company Armaris concluded the sale of three submarines to the Malaysian government for ¤1 billion - is out of the ordinary. The murder of the 28-year-old Mongolian was the result of a "commission" of ¤114 million by Armaris to its Malaysian counterpart. This commission, acknowledged by the Malaysian government, triggered a chain of events that led to the assassination of Altantuya and the disappearance of several key witnesses in the case.

A November 19, 2006 report from the Malaysian police, which has been kept secret until now, reveals precise descriptions how this young woman, a member of Asian high society, was killed. In this document, one of the killers, a policeman of the Malaysian Special Branch named Sirul Omar, replied to questions by an officer at a police station close to the murder scene.

"When the Chinese woman saw that I had a gun, she begged me to spare her, saying she was pregnant. Azilah [Sirul's commanding officer] grabbed her and threw her on the ground. I immediately shot the left side of her face. Then Azilah took off her clothes and put them in a black plastic bag. Azilah noticed that her hand was still moving. He ordered me to shoot again, which I did," said Sirul.

This is the first confirmation of Altantuya's killers' identity.

"Then we carried her body into the woods. Azilah wrapped explosives around her legs, abdomen and head, and we blew her up."

The revelation of this report in the French newspaper Liberation is the latest chapter in this dramatic saga featuring French arms dealers, Mongolian shamans and Malaysian politicians.

This case is explosive not only for the Malaysian government, with the deputy prime minister and finance minister Najib Razak (who is scheduled to become prime minister at the end of March) suspected of having links to the case. It could also embarrass DCNS, the French company specialising in military shipbuilding. Armaris, which sold Scorpène and Agosta submarines to Malaysia in June 2002 was bought by DCNS in 2007.

Altantuya grew up in St Petersburg, then studied at the Institute of Economic Management in Beijing. Besides speaking English, she was fluent in Russian, Chinese and Korean. The fateful cycle for her began when she met Abdul Razak Baginda in Hong Kong in 2004. Baginda is a security expert and was the director of the Malaysian Strategic Research Centre, a pro-government think-tank. The two became romantically involved. Altantuya, nicknamed Tuya by her friends, proved to be a useful assistant, helping Baginda translate from Russian to English.

In March 2005 Altantuya and Baginda went to Europe, touring France, Germany, Italy and Portugal, staying in plush hotels and dining in the finest restaurants. This trip, however, was not only for pleasure: the contract for the sale of the submarines had been signed in 2002, but important details had yet to be settled.

"We knew that Baginda was used by Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak as an intermediary for weapons deals, especially the high-level ones," says a regional security-affairs expert.

At the end of March 2005 the couple was in Paris, where they met with Najib Razak. A picture shows the three in a Parisian club.

"Tuya showed me the picture. She said that one of the men was her boyfriend, Abdul Razak Baginda, and the other the big boss, Najib Razak," said Altantuya's best friend Amy. "I asked her if they were brothers because of the names, but she said no, that Najib Razak was the prime minister."

Najib Razak has sworn on the Koran that he never met Altantuya. According to a private detective, now in hiding in India, Tuya was also the occasional mistress of the deputy prime minister, who was introduced to her by Baginda at the end of 2004.

In October 2006, Altantuya was informed that the commission paid by Armaris had arrived in the Kuala Lumpur bank account of Perimekar, a company owned by Baginda.

Altantuya went to Kuala Lumpur to claim her share of the commission from Baginda; she said she was entitled to US$500,000 (Bt18 million). She and Baginda had already broken up prior to this.

Meanwhile, a jealous Rosmah Mansor, the feared businesswoman and wife of Najib Razak, objected to any payment to Altantuya.

For several days, Altantuya harassed her ex-lover. On October 18, Baginda could no longer tolerate the daily scenes made by Altantuya in front of his house. He contacted the director of the Special Branch, Musa Safrie, who happened also to be Najib Razak's aide de camp. On October 19, 2006, just before 9pm, two Special Branch officers, Azilah Hadridan and Sirul Omar, were sent to Baginda's house, where Altantuya was gesticulating and shouting. They were ordered to "neutralise the Chinese woman". They kidnapped her, shot her several times, then destroyed her body with C4 explosives, which could only be obtained from the Defence Ministry. Altantuya's entry into Malaysia was erased from immigration records.

Somehow, the local police were tipped off that something odd had happened in front of Baginda's house, and events unfolded that even Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak could not impede. He tried to cover up the case. Before the arrest of Baginda, [the deputy prime minister] sent him an SMS: "I will see the inspector-general of police at 11am today... The problem will be solved. Be cool". A few hours later, Baginda was arrested along with Azilah and Sirul.

After a trial considered dubious by many observers, Baginda was acquitted of having ordered the murder and was released in November 2008. Accused of having perpetrated the murder, Azilah and Sirul appeared in court last month. If convicted, their sentences will be death. The verdict is scheduled for April 9.

In Ulan Bator, 12-year-old Mungunshagai, the eldest son of Altantuya, is still traumatised by the death of his mother. Five-year-old Altanshagai, her youngest son, is mentally handicapped and doers not understand that he will never see his mother again.

"He asks for her all the time and stays the whole day in his chair. Every evening I bring him sweets and tell him that his mother gave them to me for him," says Shaaribuu Setev, the grandfather of the two boys.

As for Baginda, he has settled in the UK with his family. He has never uttered a word of regret on the fate of the woman who shared his life for two years.

Arnaud Dubus (in Kuala Lumpur, Ulan Bator and Paris)



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