Two Malaysian police officers to hang for murder of Mongolian model Altantuya

PUTRAJAYA (AFP) - Malaysia's highest court on Tuesday upheld death sentences for two police officers convicted of murder in a sensational scandal linked to allegations of high-level corruption that shook the long-ruling regime.

Azilah Hadri and Sirul Azhar Umar had been convicted of the 2006 killing of Mongolian national Altantuya Shaariibuu, a 28-year-old model and interpreter.

Government critics have long alleged that the two men, members of an elite unit that guards top ministers, were scapegoats in the killing of Ms Altantuya, who was at the centre of allegations of massive kickbacks in the US$1.1 billion (S$1.46 billion) 2002 purchase of French Scorpene submarines.

The remains of Ms Altantuya, who was involved in negotiations for the submarines, were found in a jungle clearing near Kuala Lumpur after apparently being shot and her corpse blown up with military-grade explosives.

Adding to the intrigue, she was a lover of Mr Abdul Razak Baginda - the man in charge of purchasing the submarines and a close associate of current Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was defence minister at the time of the deal.

Allegations have simmered for years that Ms Altantuya was murdered to keep her quiet about purported kickbacks to high-level Malaysian officials.

The government has long refused calls for a wide-ranging inquiry and the subject is taboo.

Both of the accused accused deny killing Ms Altantuya. Sirul has previously alleged he was being "sacrificed" to protect others.

The Federal Court panel said on Tuesday that the two officers had both separately led investigators to the site where the body was found, which "strengthened the case" against them.

A shocked-looking Azilah was led out of the courtroom Tuesday after the decision.

Sirul's defence team, however, told the court they did not know his whereabouts. An arrest warrant was issued.

They were convicted in 2009 and sentenced to hang, but released when an appeals court overturned the conviction in 2013 after raising questions about how their trial was conducted, prompting the prosecution's appeal to the Federal Court.

Critics frequently allege government manipulation of sensitive court cases.

The case centres on allegations French submarine maker DCNS paid commissions of more than 114 million euros (S$180 million) to a shell company linked to Abdul Razak Baginda, who is not related to the premier.

Malaysia's opposition claims these were kickbacks.

No motive for Ms Altantuya's death has ever been revealed.

French judicial officials, acting on a request by Malaysian human rights group Suaram, opened an investigation in 2010 into the sale. The inquiry is ongoing.

Ms Cynthia Gabriel, who runs a Malaysian anti-corruption non-governmental organisation, welcomed the decision but said too many questions remain unanswered.

"For truth-seeking Malaysians, they want to know the motive for her brutal death and if anyone high up in the political leadership was also involved in the murder," she said.

In 2008, private investigator P. Balasubramaniam implicated several government officials, including Datuk Seri Najib, in the murder. He later recanted, saying he was being coerced to keep silent, and fled abroad.

Mr Najib has denied any involvement.

Mr Balasubramaniam returned in 2013, vowing to expose the truth, but died within two weeks of an apparent heart attack.