As Najib Razak was fighting the election that would end his controversial prime ministership of Malaysia, a former official of his political party quietly entered Australia’s Villawood detention centre to visit an inmate at the centre of one of the biggest scandals of Najib’s reign.
Two weeks ago, Datuk Khairul Anwar Rahmat, the former head of Najib’s United Malay National party’s youth wing, flew to Sydney and, with the approval of Australia’s department of home affairs, went straight to meet in private with Sirul Azhar Umar, a former police commando and hitman.
In 2009, Sirul was convicted in Malaysia and sentenced to death for the sensational murder of a Mongolian woman, Altantuya Shaariibuu, in a case widely suspected to have links to Najib. A source told the Guardian that the Malaysian visitor was in Australia to deliver a message to his countryman: “Don’t say anything”.
Sirul is under pressure from Australian authorities to prove he did not mastermind the killing if he is to be deemed not a threat to the Australian community and granted a protection visa. His case is due to he heard within months and questions remain over whether he will be willing to implicate others in order to secure freedom in Australia for himself.
The killing of Altantuya Shaariibuu
One night in October 2006, Sirul and another member of Najib’s elite security contingent kidnapped and killed Altantuya Shaariibuu.
She was abducted in front of Baginda’s Kuala Lumpur home and driven to a remote clearing on the outskirts of the city. There she was shot dead with a high-powered semi-automatic gun and her body destroyed with military grade explosives.
Sirul and his fellow officer were found guilty of the murder in 2009 but no motive has ever been established. Neither of them had met Altantuya until they forced her into the back of a car. They had been directly engaged by Baginda to stop her harassing him for an alleged US$500,000 she claimed she was owed for her assistance in negotiating a French submarine deal.
The crime dogged Najib’s time in office – but a direct link between him and the murder has never been established. Najib has always denied any involvement or ever knowing Altantuya.
Sirul escaped to Australia in late 2014 when he was out on bail waiting for the judgment on an appeal against his conviction. When that conviction and death sentence were upheld by the Malaysian federal court in January 2015, Australian Federal Police arrested Sirul in Queensland after an Interpol alert. He had overstayed his tourist visa and was later transferred to Villawood.
Three days before he was taken into custody in Australia, Sirul sent an SMS message to a close associate with ties to Malaysia’s intelligence agency.
“Greetings boss. I am in difficulties here. I want 2 million Australian dollars before boss (you) come to meet me… after that I want 15 million … I will not return to Malaysia ever boss. I won’t bring down the PM.”
Four and a half hours later, the man replied: “They want to discuss.”
When Sirul was first incarcerated in Australia journalists were able to visit him. Just weeks after his arrest he reportedly told Malaysia’s online newspaper, Malaysiakini: “I was under orders, the important people with motive (to murder Altantuya) are still free.” He told the Sydney Morning Herald: “I am the scapegoat.”
After his detention, it was suggested that Sirul was gearing up to do a “tell all” interview from behind bars in Villawood. But soon after, Sirul had become off limits to journalists. Multiple requests from the Guardian have been rejected by the Australian government.
However, the government has allowed Malaysian officials and their middlemen to meet with him regularly.
In early 2016, three video recordings of Sirul surfaced on Malaysiakini’s news website. In them he recanted his previous testimony and exonerated Najib.
“I understand that it is the intention of certain quarters with vested interests to topple a certain someone … In God’s name … the most honourable prime minister Najib Abdul Razak was never involved and had no links to the case,” he stated.
At the time the videos were released, Najib was battling for his survival. It was the height of Malaysia’s multibillion-dollar 1MDB scandal where it was discovered that US$681m from the state investment fund had been transferred into the prime minister’s personal bank accounts. He claimed it was a gift from the Saudi Royal family.
Najib cleared himself of any wrongdoing, but now that he has been removed from power he could be investigated and prosecuted for his role in the 1MDB scandal.
Greg Lopez, a Malaysia expert at Western Australia’s Murdoch University, says the new government in Kuala Lumpur is likely to re-open the Altantuya case.
“The fact no motive for the murder has ever been established leaves open the question that it was a state-sponsored killing and that needs to be thoroughly investigated. Najib could find himself in a very precarious situation.”
Najib could find himself in a very precarious situation as he believes the new prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, will be looking to commute Sirul’s sentence and get him back to Malaysia.
From the Australian perspective, he says: “Questions need to be answered as to the relationship between the Australian government and Najib.
“How is it that an individual, who was standing trial for murder in one of the region’s most high-profile cases was allowed to come to Australia on a tourist visa and why were Malaysian officials allowed to visit and seemingly manipulate him in detention? Those questions have never been answered satisfactorily by the Australian government.”
For three years Sirul has languished in Australia’s highest security detention centre at a cost of at least $800,000.
In 2017 Sirul received official notification from the department of immigration and border protection that his application for a protection visa was likely to be rejected on the grounds he had committed a non-political crime before entering Australia. The letter also stated the department had received “unfavourable information that does not support your application”.
The substance of that unfavourable information has not been disclosed publicly. In recent weeks there have been teleconferences between Sirul’s Australian lawyers and the department. The timeline is now set for a hearing of his case in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. By Friday 11 May, he had to give “any additional evidence” he “intends to rely on and a statement of issues, facts and contentions”. The department must reply by 30 May. By 1 June both Sirul and the department must “give a hearing certificate” in which they need to list witnesses, experts and their legal representatives.
For Sirul, he can’t remain silent any longer if he’s to prove why he isn’t “ineligible for the grant of a protection visa”.
What sparked Datuk Khairul’s visit two weeks ago also remains unclear, but it is known that since Sirul was incarcerated Datuk Khairul has visited him three to four times a year – his previous visit was only in February. This time he stayed for about an hour and a half.
Datuk Khairul is yet to respond to an email requesting him to confirm his visit to Sirul, his relationship to him and why he came to see him.
In 2016 Altantuya’s father, Setev Shaariibuu, a now retired professor at Mongolia’s Ulaanbaatar University, was still trying to come to terms with what happened, telling Al Jazeera’s 101 East : “My daughter did nothing bad to (Malaysia), maybe she made someone furious or mad, but she wasn’t a terrorist, she didn’t kill anybody, she didn’t illegally cross borders. There must be a huge amount of money, power and possibly crucial operations behind this. It’s obvious.”
“Altantuya’s life was taken away, she was executed. Someday those people who did this crime will be punished.”