MANILA, Philippines—A Malaysian police officer met with the elder brother of Agbimuddin Kiram two months before the intrusion of the followers of the sultan of Sulu in February that led to the deaths of more than 70 people.
The meeting between former Sabah Special Branch deputy chief Zulkifli Aziz and Esmail Kiram, brother of Agbimuddin Kiram, leader of the Sulu group that intruded into Sabah, suggested that the intrusion had gone through long planning and was possibly aided by some people in the territory.
At least one Malaysian police officer is suspected of aiding the Sulu sultanate’s plan to take over Sabah by withholding information about it and it is during the officer’s trial, which began on Monday, that Zulkifli testified to contact with Esmail Kiram, brother of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram prior to the intrusion.
The Special Branch officer, Hassan Ali Basari, is being tried in the High Court in Kota Kinabalu for withholding information about the intrusion from investigators.
He was arrested in late March after the disclosure of information that he had learned about the plan for the intrusion into Tanduo village in Lahad Datu town but did not report it to his superiors.
Hassan allegedly learned about the plan from a witness who reported to him that he heard some of Kirams’ followers talking about the plan for the intrusion while he was selling fish in Bongao town in Tawi-Tawi, southern Philippines, in January.
Hassan was charged with intentionally withholding information related to terrorist acts, which carries a jail term of up to seven years or a fine or both upon conviction.
He pleaded not guilty at the opening of his trial on Monday.
Testifying at Hassan’s trial on Tuesday, Zulkifli said he met Esmail in Sabah in late December 2012 for a cup of coffee and to “get to know him,” according to Malaysia’s The Star newspaper.
Under questioning by lawyer Ram Singh, Zulkifli testified that Esmail did not reveal plans by the sultanate of Sulu to occupy Tanduo.
But Esmail asked for his help to look for investors to develop his 16,000-hectare land in Mindanao into an oil palm plantation, the paper said.
Zulkifli said he contacted Esmail on Feb. 12 to obtain the telephone number of his younger brother Agbimuddin.
He denied that he and the Special Branch were aware of the possible intrusion into Sabah as early as December 2012, the paper said.
The Star quoted Zulkifli as saying that he was alerted to the intrusion when he received a call from a duty officer at the Sabah Command Control Center on Feb. 12.
He said he cracked jokes and distributed cigarettes to ease a very tense situation when he met Agbimuddin and his armed followers in Tanduo that day.
He said there were three meetings between Feb. 14 and 16 for “tactical intelligence” purposes apart from trying to convince the group to leave.
“I cracked a few jokes to liven up the situation by promising to bring them fried chicken and pizzas,” Zulkifli said.
“And to allow us to take pictures of them, I told them to smile for the camera because their photos might appear in newspapers the following day,” he added.
The intrusion by Agbimuddin’s group led to a standoff with Malaysian police and military troops that erupted into violence on March 1.
The fighting spilled over to other villages as the authorities flushed out the intruders, resulting in the deaths of 63 fighters from Agbimuddin’s group, eight Malaysian police officers and two soldiers.
Agbimuddin has not been heard from since the fighting ended in late March. The Star/ANN