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05 December 2023

Cop's death sentence in model's murder overturned

Altantuya Shaariibuu. (AFP)


Malaysia's highest court on Tuesday (Jan 13) upheld death sentences for two police officers convicted of murder in a sensational scandal linked to allegations of high-level corruption that shook the long-ruling regime.

Azilah Hadri and Sirul Azhar Umar had been convicted of the 2006 killing of Mongolian national Altantuya Shaariibuu, a 28-year-old model and interpreter.

Government critics have long alleged that the two men, members of an elite unit that guards top ministers, were scapegoats in the killing of Altantuya, who was at the centre of allegations of massive kickbacks in the US$1.1 billion 2002 purchase of French Scorpene submarines.

The remains of Altantuya, who was involved in negotiations for the submarines, were found in a jungle clearing near the capital Kuala Lumpur after apparently being shot and her corpse blown up with military-grade explosives.

Adding to the intrigue, she was a lover of Abdul Razak Baginda - the man in charge of purchasing the submarines and a close associate of current Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was defence minister at the time of the deal.

Allegations have simmered for years that Altantuya was murdered to keep her quiet about purported kickbacks to high-level Malaysian officials. Malaysia's government has long refused calls for a wide-ranging inquiry.

Both of the accused deny killing Altantuya, and Sirul has previously alleged that he was being "sacrificed" to protect others.

The Federal Court panel said Tuesday the two officers had both separately led investigators to the site where the body was found, which "strengthened the case" against them.

A shocked-looking Azilah was led out of the courtroom Tuesday after the decision. Sirul, however, was not present and his defence team told the court they did not know of his whereabouts.

They were convicted in 2009 and sentenced to hang, but released when an appeals court overturned the conviction in 2013 after raising questions about how their trial was conducted.

The case centres on allegations French submarine maker DCNS paid commissions of more than 114 million euros (US$142 million) to a shell company linked to Abdul Razak Baginda. Malaysia's opposition claims these were kickbacks to top officials.

French judicial officials, acting on a request by Malaysian human rights group Suaram, opened an investigation in 2010 into the sale. The inquiry is ongoing.