Canberra, Australia – For the past nine years, Sirul Azhar Umar, 52, was locked up in an Australian detention centre for overstaying a tourist visa.
On November 8, 2023, Australia’s High Court ruled it was illegal to indefinitely detain non-citizens who couldn’t be deported.
The former policeman was one such detainee and was subsequently freed. Sirul was sentenced to death in his homeland of Malaysia for the brutal murder of a 28-year-old Mongolian translator in 2006, but Australian law forbids the return of foreigners to countries where they face the death penalty.
Now living in Australia’s capital, Canberra, with his 23-year-old son, for the first time, Sirul talks about the murder he was convicted of in an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera’s 101 East.
Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu and Abdul Razak Baginda, an adviser of former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. Shaariibuu was abducted from her home and brutally murdered in 2006 [101 East/Al Jazeera]
One night in October 2006, Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu was abducted from her former lover’s home, and driven to a jungle on the outskirts of the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, where she was shot and blown up with military-grade explosives.
The kidnappers were Sirul and his superior officer, Azilah Hadri, both members of the elite security detail for Malaysia’s then-deputy prime minister, Najib Razak.
“Azilah told me this [was a] special operation for … Mr Najib,” Sirul says. “And I just obey because he is my superior.”
Shaariibuu’s ex-lover was Abdul Razak Baginda, an adviser and confidant of Najib.
Baginda brokered an allegedly corrupt billion-dollar submarine deal between Malaysia and France that was signed off by Najib when he was defence minister in 2002.
Shaariibuu had accompanied Baginda to Paris, and in 2006, was allegedly pushing for the $500,000 she was owed for assisting with the deal.
“Azilah told me, ‘This girl is disturbing Razak’,” Sirul recalls, insisting he was never at the murder scene and that the last time he saw Shaariibuu she was still alive.
“I didn’t do murder. But yes, I’m involved. I get [her] from Razak Baginda’s house,” he says. “And then I gave [her] to Azilah … and then … I don’t know nothing.”
Sirul Azhar Umar, right, and his superior officer Azilah Hadri were found guilty of Altantuya Shaariibuu’s murder in 2009 [101 East/Al Jazeera]
The bodyguards were found guilty of Shaariibuu’s murder in 2009 and sentenced to death but no motive has ever been established.
According to a police statement, which the Malaysian court deemed involuntary and, therefore, inadmissible, Sirul confessed to shooting Shaariibuu in the left side of her head.
But in an unsworn statement to the court, he said he was a “scapegoat to protect … those who were not in court”.
Baginda was charged with abetting the murder but never stood trial, a committal court finding he had no case to answer.
In 2013, Sirul’s conviction was overturned but when it was reinstated on appeal two years later, he was in Australia staying with relatives.
Days later, Sirul sent an SMS message seen by 101 East to a politically connected businessman in Malaysia, Abdul Salam Bin Ahmad, demanding millions of dollars.
“Greetings boss. I am in difficulties here. I want 2 million Australian dollars before boss [you] come to meet me. I need to guarantee the future of my child here, after that I want 15 million…. Australia. I will not return to Malaysia not ever boss. I won’t bring down the PM,” he wrote.
But Sirul now says the SMS was not his idea, claiming, “I had instructions from Mr Salam”. In his response, Salam wrote, “They will discuss”. According to Sirul, he was referring to Najib. “The point is to get some money or something from Najib,” he says.
Sirul claims to have been manipulated for political purposes ever since the murder.
Najib Razak was prime minister of Malaysia between 2009 to 2018 and is currently serving a 12-year sentence after being found guilty of corruption [Ahmad Luqman Ismail/EPA-EFE]
Paid for silence
In 2016, while in an Australian immigration detention centre, Sirul recorded and circulated a absolving Najib of any involvement in Shaariibuu’s murder.
“Dato’ Seri Najib Razak was not involved and has no relevance to the case,” he said in the .
Now, he claims, he wants to “tell the truth”.
“This is Australia. Anybody can talk, isn’t it?” he says. “I want to expose and [tell] the truth now.”
Sirul claims he received more than $200,000 to make the . “My solicitor was offering me a lot of money,” he says.
“So they offered and gave me some money. I spent for my son, because I love my son. My son is going to grow up here … spend a lot of money, study here [in Australia], everything. And my daughter, as well.
“Until now, I have somebody [who] controls me. ‘Umar, you don’t talk. You keep silent’.”
He claims he is unaware who paid him the money, adding that he’d never paid his lawyers in Malaysia or Australia.
But he is clear about who he was supposed to protect with his silence.
“Honestly, I’m going to tell you specifically, to protect … prime minister at that time, Mr Najib.”
Sirul says he’s unsure exactly why the hush money was paid, but suggests what he could reveal about his conversations with Azilah would have had political consequences for Najib. Despite Najib’s denials of any involvement in the murder, widespread speculation linking him to Shaariibuu’s killing plagued his political career.
Sirul asserts that eence presented to the court was all “planted”, denying any knowledge of Shaariibuu’s jewellery found in his jacket in his wardrobe and bloodstained slippers found in his car.
He cites the appeal court’s decision in 2013 to overturn his 2009 conviction as proof the eence against him was weak and goes on to speculate that Najib interfered in the court to ensure the conviction was reinstated in 2015. “They have nobody guilty,” he says.
Sirul was released from immigration detention in Australia on November 11 and feels that his life would be at risk if he were sent back to Malaysia [101 East/Al Jazeera]
Two days after his release from immigration detention on November 11, he tells 101 East, he had already had meetings with a Malaysian police intelligence officer attached to Malaysia’s high commission and was told that it had reassured Australia’s foreign minister that he posed no threat to the Australian community.
He claims to be in regular contact with the intelligence officer and his former police colleagues. “I’m still in contact with my group. I have a WhatsApp group, around 300 people. My friends all from special unit,” he explains.
While there is debate in Malaysia about the possibility of extraditing him and debate in Australia about the threat to the community after the release of a number of convicted criminals from detention, Sirul’s freedom is fragile.
Soon after the High Court’s decision, the Australian parliament rushed through emergency laws to allow authorities to use electronic ankle bracelets and curfews to monitor the freed detainees.
Opposition immigration spokesman, Dan Tehan, says that’s not enough.
“I think he [Sirul] needs to go back to Malaysia. And so, I would ask the Malaysian government to drop the death penalty so that we can send him back.”
But that’s the last thing Sirul wants to happen, claiming, “I feel in danger there because I’m aware that it’s truly unsafe for me to return there … Whatever happens, I want to build a life with my child here in Australia.”
Shaariibuu’s father told Al Jazeera in 2015 that his daughter was ‘executed’ and ‘someday those people who did this crime will be punished’ [101 East/Al Jazeera]
And he had this to say to Shaariibuu’s family: “I’m going to apologise to the family of the deceased. You know, Altantuya. Please forgive me.”
Shaariibuu’s two sons grew up without their mother. One of them, who was severely disabled, is now dead. Meanwhile, her father continues to fight for justice.
“Nothing can replace a mother’s love and care for her children – nothing. Altantuya’s life was taken away; she was executed. Someday, those people who did this crime will be punished,” Shaariibuu Setev, Altantuya’s father, told Al Jazeera in 2015.
In December 2022, a Malaysian civil court ordered the government, Abdul Razak Baginda and the two convicted policemen to pay $1m in damages to Shaariibuu’s family, but the government and Baginda have appealed the decision. Shaariibuu’s family have also filed an appeal for greater compensation having originally asked the court for more than $20m.
101 East approached Sirul’s lawyer, Hasnal Rezua Merican, businessman Abdul Salam bin Ahmad, as well as the Australian foreign minister and the Malaysian High Commission for comment on the former bodyguard’s claims, but received no responses.
Najib is serving a 12-year jail sentence for corruption and abuse of power and could not be reached for comment.