Many believe Sanjaasuren Zorig’s 1998 murder was ordered by someone at the top
By Lucy Hornby in Beijing
It is a grisly murder mystery that has cast a shadow over Mongolian politics for almost 20 years.
The east Asian nation has finally launched an investigation to identify who ordered the assassination of Sanjaasuren Zorig, a hero of Mongolia’s independence from the Soviet Union who was stabbed to death in 1998, hours after being nominated as prime minister.
Two men and a woman were last month convicted of the murder in a closed court but the secret four-day trial failed to reveal who hired them — stoking conspiracy theories that the killing was a politically motivated hit carried out at the behest of someone at the top.
Mongolian media outlets have alleged that the mastermind’s bodyguard was part of the gang who carried out the killing, before being murdered by one of the men sentenced last week. Amid mounting criticism over why the state has not revealed the names involved, Ulan Bator’s state general prosecutor on Wednesday announced an investigation into who ordered the assassination.
Mogi Badral Bontoi of the Cover Mongolia consultancy said: “People are not convinced by this trial. It seems weird to sentence someone and then look for the guy who ordered the killing.”
The bloody murder of Zorig, who was stabbed multiple times after he returned to his Ulan Bator home, is seen by many Mongolians as ending the idealism that accompanied the early years of their democracy. The secret trial, imprisonment of people suspected of involvement in the case, and even a state-sponsored kidnapping, have all fuelled the idea that a senior figure was behind the killing.
Oyun Sanjaasuren, Zorig’s sister and founder of the Civil Will party, said in an email: “Our family has asked for a declassifying of the case and we have been calling for [an] open hearing. The requests have not been met. We do not think the case has been fully solved or closed.”
Many in the landlocked country believe Zorig’s murderer hailed from among his fellow Democrats, an uneasy coalition of idealists, businessmen and pro-market politicians that came to power in the mid-1990s. Others suspect the Communists, now back in power as the Mongolian People’s Party after they defeated the Democrats in last year’s election. Officials from the country’s largest copper mine, Russian gangsters and common criminals have also been implicated.
Zorig’s widow, Bulgan, was imprisoned for several months last year, accused of giving false testimony during an earlier investigation into her husband’s murder. The assassins had tied her up in the bathroom while they waited for Zorig to come home.
Another unanswered question concerns a Mongolian man who was kidnapped in 2003 from a McDonald’s restaurant in France before being drugged, transported across Europe and flown home to stand trial for Zorig’s murder.
After those charges were dismissed, he and his lawyer were jailed for three years for leaking state secrets and the man died days after his release. A Mongolian intelligence agent was detained for several months in Germany on suspicion of ordering the kidnapping before Berlin dropped the allegations in 2011. He is now Mongolia’s top security official.
Analysts believe Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, Mongolian president and a veteran of the independence movement who was ousted as prime minister shortly before Zorig’s death, is keen to close the book on the long-running case before he leaves office this summer.