A Malaysian appeals court has overturned the convictions of two police officers sentenced to hang for the murder of Mongolian model Altantuya Shaaribiibuu, but the local and international ramifications that came with her brutal killing will continue to haunt Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Shaariibuu was a 28-year-old former model and interpreter at the center of allegations of $1.1 billion in kickbacks involving the Malaysian government’s purchase of two French submarines in 2002 when current Prime Minister Najib Razak was the Defense Minister.
Those allegations are currently before the French courts, where civil society groups have pinned their hopes of finding an explanation for her death and the sordid unexplained details that linked her with Razak and his wife Rosmah.
Both insist they had nothing to do with the girl who in 2006 was taken to an isolated knoll, tied-up, shot, before having explosives attached to her body and detonated in a bizarre attempt, the courts heard, at destroying the evidence. She was pregnant at the time.
Azilah Hadri and Sirul Azhar Umar, members of an elite police unit responsible for guarding the country’s leaders, including the First Lady, were convicted in 2009 of the murder amid accusations they were being made scapegoats for the real killers.
But in a move then won applause from the defense but shocked the prosecution and Malaysia’s political opposition, a three-judge appeals panel ruled that a lower court had erred by failing to connect the men to explosives used to blow up the victim's body.
Shaariibuu had acted as a translator during the purchase of the submarines and had an affair with Abdul Razak Baginda, a former close associate of Najib, who arranged the kickbacks, and was charged with ordering her murder before being acquitted.
Prosecutors say they will appeal the decision, while the French courts remain in the early stages of their hearings. Human rights groups are calling for a further independent government inquiry while her father has called on the Mongolian government to intervene.
Calls for an inquiry have been ignored by Najib whose government endured its worst election result yet at the national polls in May.
The ruling Barisan Nasional coalition won enough seats to form a government but lost the popular vote with more than 50 percent of the ballots going to opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
Human Rights group Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) has also demanded an end to the alleged harassment of its supporters. The group claimed that the harassment was deliberately designed to intimidate its supporters for exposing information about the ongoing Scorpene submarine probe in the French courts.
A prominent French lawyer connected with the case was deported by Malaysian authorities two years ago.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.