A high-profile Malaysian fugitive detained in Australia has created a diplomatic problem for the government in Canberra which cannot by law extradite someone who could face capital punishment.
Sirul Azhar Umar, a former policeman, has been sentenced to death for the murder of Mongolian model Altantuya Shaariibuu, 28, in 2006 after her year-long affair with a friend of Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak ended in a messy disagreement. The Australian government confirmed yesterday that Sirul was detained a day before his death sentence was passed.
Ms Shaariibuu’s remains were found in a jungle clearing near Kuala Lumpur after apparently being shot and her corpse blown up with military-grade explosives.
Sirul and fellow accused Azilah Hadri, both members of an elite unit that guards top ministers, denied killing Ms Shaariibuu, a model and interpreter, but were convicted in 2009 and sentenced to hang.
The pair were later released when an appeals court overturned the conviction in 2013 after raising questions about how their trial was conducted.
But last week, Malaysia’s highest court upheld their death sentences over the killing. After the decision, a shocked-looking Azilah was led out of the courtroom, but Sirul’s defence team said they did not know his whereabouts and an arrest warrant was issued.
Malaysia has called for Sirul’s extradition, but Australian media reported he will not be sent back as Canberra forbids returning suspects to a country where they may face the death penalty. This has led Malaysian officials to suggest they may now sue Australia, with media reports suggesting he has been in the country since November.
Malaysian government critics have long alleged that Sirul and Azilah were scapegoats in the killing of Ms Shaariibuu, who was at the centre of allegations of massive kickbacks in the $1.1 billion, 2002 purchase of French Scorpene submarines. Ms Shaariibuu became involved in negotiations for the submarines as the lover of Abdul Razak Baginda – the man in charge of purchasing the submarines and a close associate of Mr Najib, who was defence minister at the time of the deal. Allegations simmered for years that Ms Shaariibuu was murdered to keep her quiet about kickbacks. Mr Baginda was aquitted of abetting her murder in 2008.
Mr Baginda is believed to be living in Britain and Mr Najib denies ever meeting Ms Shaariibuu or having any link to her, and his government denies any wrongdoing in the submarine deal.
Malaysia’s home minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar told the government news agency Bernama that Malaysia would consider legal action against Australia if the country refuses to extradite Sirul, a father of two who claims he is a scapegoat in the case and denies involvement in the murder.
No motive for the murder of Ms Shaariibuu was ever established.
Mahfuz Omar, information officer for the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), said Sirul and Azilah should be given the opportunity to explain the motive behind Ms Shaariibuu’s murder.
“The mastermind behind this heinous crime should be brought to justice,” he said in a statement to Malaysian media, where the case has largely been taboo for years.