WE cannot know for sure if all the details in Azilah Hadri’s explosive statutory declaration (SD) regarding the killing of Mongolian national Altantuya Shaariibuu in 2006 are true.
His revelations obviously have extremely serious political ramifications – most of which are the talk of the town this week.
Azilah’s story however, also potentially raises important questions about how things are done in the Royal Malaysia Police (PDRM).
Almost every paragraph in this article can be preceded by the phrase “If Azilah’s story is true ..., ”.
For the purposes of brevity however, let it be stated here that all this is a hypothetical exercise that is particularly relevant should the details of Azilah’s story be in fact true.
His story is in many ways a tragedy. This man kept his silence for over 13 years, and his SD does indeed read like that of a man who has borne a heavy secret for that long.
To be clear, Azilah is no hero. At the end of the day, by his own confession, he pulled the trigger and has to bear the rightful consequences for his part in this sordid affair.
That said, this article is about what allegedly went through Azilah’s mind as he made the decision to commit this crime, and what this tells us about the culture of the police force, and the Malaysian government as a whole.
Azilah’s story more or less begins when he was brought in to see then deputy prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who tells Azilah that he is needed to perform an extremely important task that is vital to national security.
Najib allegedly tells Azilah that Altantuya is a spy who is a threat to national security because she is privy to all sorts of national security secrets. He also says that she is a slick operator, given to lying, and pretending that she is pregnant.
Azilah then says that Najib instructed him to get rid of Altantuya. When Azilah asked to clarify what Najib meant, Najib allegedly made a throat-slitting gesture. Najib also allegedly instructed Azilah to dispose of the corpse via explosives (a move that would theoretically erase any trace of a pregnancy, for example).
Throughout the story, Azilah says he repeatedly suggested to Najib and his aide-de-camp Musa Safri that the right approach would be to go through the proper channels and file a police report.
They refused Azilah’s suggestion, and told him that this was a national security matter of the utmost secrecy, that there was to be no paperwork, and that Najib’s name was to be kept out of this affair at all costs.
The rest of the SD narrates the sequence of events in considerable detail.
At the end of it all, the picture that emerges is one of a man who either trusted or was so subservient to his bosses, that he was willing to commit murder almost without question.
Azilah allegedly had nothing but verbal instructions and assurances to rely on. He was told that everything was going to be okay, and that his superiors would protect him.
Presumably he believed that the assurances of a deputy prime minister would suffice.
Ultimately, those assurances clearly did not suffice, as evidenced by Azilah now being on death row.
Once again, the potential political implications are massive.
Somewhat less scrutinised perhaps are some larger institutional questions.
How did a policeman and public servant become convinced that the verbal assurances of a few of his superiors were sufficient for him to disregard proper procedure and act outside the ambit of the law?
If Azilah’s account is true, it suggests a number of disturbing scenarios.
Firstly, that in the police and other institutions, feudal loyalty to one’s superiors is prioritised over adherence to proper procedure and the strict rule of law.
Secondly, that there are police, armed and trained to kill, who are ready to believe that they can do so without adherence to standard operating procedures, and without any kind of paperwork or institutional legitimisation.
Thirdly, that at least some police believe that if they follow the instructions of their superiors, they will be protected from the law.
By implication, their superiors are in fact, deemed to be above the law. Note: this is the perception of the very officers tasked with and sworn to uphold that same law.
If the police believe that politicians are above the law, where does that leave us?
As one of our politicians loved to say on his campaign trail, do we have rule of law in Malaysia, or the law of the jungle?
It is extremely hard to believe that Azilah would have acted on his own, to kill someone he did not know, for no discernible benefit to himself (unless you count the RM300 Najib allegedly gave him afterwards).
If he was just following orders (which the Nuremberg trials after World War II has taught us is no excuse), then what kind of police force and government do we have if politicians can just call a cop into their room, and successfully instruct them to kill someone and then blow them up, with no proper, institutionally backed orders?
Malaysians need to be protected from such violence, and the police need to be protected from such unscrupulous leaders.
This is where institutions like the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) would be of help to both the police and to the people of Malaysia.
An independent commission like the IPCMC exists not only to protect Malaysians from the police, but to protect the police from being neglected and from being unlawfully manipulated by powerful people in authority.
PDRM has a notoriously top-down power structure, where seniority and the chain of command are usually adhered to very strictly.
Should there be problems within the police hierarchy, officers may often feel they have no one to turn to – they can’t after all, make a police report, without fear of serious internal repercussions.
This highlights once again the need for an institution of recourse that exists outside the internal hierarchy and structure of the police – once again, both for the protection of ordinary Malaysians as well as the police themselves.
There will be ongoing focus on Najib’s role in this killing, and a lot of it will be political in nature.
Politics aside though, we must remember that a young woman was murdered in cold blood in the most brutal way imaginable, here on Malaysian soil.
One way or another, politics or no politics, everyone involved in her murder – from top to bottom – must be held accountable.
NATHANIEL TAN is a communications consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org