Malaysia asks Australia to hand over fugitive convicted of Mongolian's murder: Minister

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Malaysia said on Thursday that it had formally asked Australia to hand over a former police commando sentenced to hang for the murder of a Mongolian model in a sensational political scandal linked to corruption allegations.

The fugitive, Sirul Azhar Umar, has been detained by the authorities in Australia where he apparently fled recently ahead of a court decision last week in Malaysia that upheld his death sentence. Australian media have said Sirul will not be sent back as Canberra forbids repatriating suspects who face the death penalty, setting up a potential tug-of-war.

Home Minister Zahid Hamidi told reporters that the Malaysian police have "put a formal request in, via the (Malaysian) Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for his deportation" back to Malaysia.

Sirul and Azilah Hadri, once members of an elite unit that guards top ministers, were convicted of the 2006 killing of 28-year-old Altantuya Shaariibuu, a Mongolian model and interpreter involved in Malaysia's controversy-shrouded purchase of French Scorpene submarines more than a decade ago.

Her remains were found in a jungle near Kuala Lumpur after apparently being blown up with military-grade explosives.

Malaysian government critics have long alleged Sirul and Azilah were scapegoats in the murder. Sirul has previously suggested he was taking the fall for higher-ups.

Whistle-blowers allege massive kickbacks to high-level Malaysian officials in the US$1.1 billion (S$1.46 billion) 2002 purchase, and accusations have simmered for years that Ms Altantuya was murdered to keep her quiet.

The issue has clouded the reputation of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was defence minister at the time of the deal. He became premier in 2009.

Ms Altantuya was a lover of Mr Abdul Razak Baginda - the man in charge of purchasing the submarines and a close associate of Datuk Seri Najib's.

Mr Najib denies any wrongdoing but Malaysia has steadfastly resisted calls for an investigation into the explosive affair.

Sirul had been able to leave the country because an appeals court in 2013 overturned the pair's initial 2009 conviction, freeing them. But Malaysia's highest court last week sided with a subsequent prosecution counter-appeal.

Azilah is in custody.