Lurid tale of bribery and murder looms anew for Malaysia's Najib

Kuala Lumpur (AFP) –


Ousted Malaysian premier Najib Razak is already in hot water over allegations he looted state funds, but his legal woes could worsen as calls grow for a fresh look at an even darker past scandal involving the grisly slaying of a young model.

The lurid earlier affair centred on allegations that Malaysian officials took huge kickbacks in the 2002 purchase of Scorpene submarines from France when Najib was defence minister.

The sensational saga transfixed Malaysia for years until the authoritarian former regime used its leverage to bury it, though whispers persisted that Najib, 64, and his wife Rosmah Mansor were deeply involved.

But Najib was trounced in a May 9 election and Malaysia's new government has vowed to investigate not only current allegations that he stole billions from sovereign wealth fund 1MDB, but also lift the lid on other unresolved scandals from the past.

"We are very encouraged by the quick moves so far on (1MDB) and that the government is taking previous corruption seriously," said Cynthia Gabriel, who heads the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4), a Malaysian NGO.

"In this regard, scandals like Scorpene cannot be ignored. Pressure is building and its going to get more interesting."

Najib's immediate concern is allegations that he, his family, and cronies pillaged billions from 1MDB. He is barred from leaving Malaysia and police have seized large amounts of cash, jewels and luxury items from his home and other sites.

- Alleged cover-up -

But 1MDB pales in many ways to the Scorpene affair, which has sex, betrayal, submarines, a fugitive assassin, and an unfortunate Mongolian former model.

French submarine maker DCNS is alleged to have paid more than 114 million euros ($134 million) in kickbacks to a shell company linked to Abdul Razak Baginda, a close Najib associate who brokered the $1.1 billion submarine deal.

Abdul Razak's Mongolian mistress Altantuya Shaariibuu, who was said to have demanded a cut for translating during negotiations, was shot dead and her body blown up with military-grade plastic explosives near Kuala Lumpur in 2006.

Allegations that Najib and Rosmah were involved in the killing -- carried out by two government bodyguards -- were steadfastly denied. Najib also was forced to publicly deny having had an affair with Altantuya.

The case sank off the radar after a Malaysian court in 2008 cleared Abdul Razak of abetting the murder, sparking allegations of a huge cover-up to protect Najib, by then promoted to deputy prime minister.

But the election result changes the equation.

Sirul Azhar Umar, who was convicted along with another police bodyguard in the killing and fled to Australia in 2015, told a Malaysian news outlet Saturday he was ready to reveal who ordered the murder.

"I am willing to assist the new government to tell what actually transpired provided that the government grants me (a) full pardon," Sirul, who is in Australian immigration custody, told news website Malaysiakini.

Sirul has maintained that he and his accomplice were scapegoats for "important people", but with family still in Malaysia, he has so far held back revealing what happened.

- Calls for new trial -

Leading Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim, released from jail last week in the wake of the election and expected to eventually become prime minister, told AFP on Thursday that Sirul and his accomplice Azilah Hadri should be granted fresh trials.

"At that time, the judiciary was compromised," Anwar, 70, said in an interview.

"I don't know to what extent Najib was involved or not, but he's certainly implicated in some way."

Also looming is a slow-moving effort in French courts that could reveal more.

French judicial sources last year told AFP that investigators there had indicted two former top French executives linked to the Scorpene deal, as well as Abdul Razak.

Following Malaysia's election, C4 publicly called for an immediate investigation of Najib and others over the submarines and Altantuya's murder.

Gabriel admits the sheer backlog of scandals under the past regime, including dodgy land deals, looting of timber resources, and numerous deaths of government critics while in police custody, could slow progress in the Scorpene case.

Powerful vested interests, such as former establishment figures now aligned with the new government, also may resist full transparency, she said.

"It might be tricky. But if they truly are now behind the rule of law, no stone should be unturned," Gabriel said.

Dredging up the truth in the Scorpene case can be risky.

In 2008, a private investigator involved in the affair, P. Balasubramaniam, implicated government officials including Najib in the murder. He quickly recanted, later saying he did so under duress, and fled to India.

He returned in 2013 vowing to reveal the truth just as Najib faced crucial elections.

He died two weeks later, with authorities blaming a heart attack.