Malaysian police agents were probably behind the abductions of a Christian pastor and an activist more than two years ago, the parliamentary-backed national human rights commission concluded Wednesday, urging state authorities to create a task force and probe what it declared as “enforced disappearances.”
Pastor Raymond Koh Keng Joo and social activist Amri Che Mat have been missing since 2016 and 2017, respectively, and the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia – also known as Suhakam – released a 95-page report detailing findings of its investigation that focused on whether their disappearances were voluntary or involved state agents.
“The direct and circumstantial evidence in Pastor Raymond Koh’s case proves, on a balance of probabilities, that he was abducted by State agents,” the commission said.
The report used the same language when it laid out legal arguments that Amri could have been abducted by state agents, particularly those under the police’s Special Branch, headquartered in Kuala Lumpur.
“There was no evidence he was arrested or detained, but he was taken away and disappeared,” Commissioner Mah Weng Kwai told reporters, referring to Amri.
Pastor Koh was snatched in broad daylight from a road in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur on Feb. 13, 2017, when SUVs and motorcycles forced his car to stop, and men in black face masks whisked him away. The abduction took less than a minute and was captured on surveillance cameras.
Amri, a resident of Perlis state, was last seen on Nov. 24, 2016. His disappearance may have been religiously motivated based on allegations that he was spreading Shia Muslim teachings, according to local media reports.
The commission said it found no evidence to support the contention of Koh’s attorney that his abduction was carried out “with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State.” Rights groups had earlier said the pastor was likely targeted over the belief that he preached Christianity to Muslims.
The report culminated months of public inquiry in which the panel heard testimonies from 16 witnesses, from October 2017 to December 2018.
But the inquiry could not determine what happened to Koh and Azmi after their abductions.
The report underscored that the disappearances of Koh and Amri “bore uncanny similarities,” with the two victims getting dragged out of their vehicles by men who wore black clothing and moved in precision style.
It also chipped away at police statements that Koh’s disappearance did not involve state agents.
The two abductions were among the many cases that rights groups had asked the government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to re-examine. Mahathir, who took power in a stunning electoral triumph that led to Najib Razak’s political downfall following the May general elections last year, had earlier vowed that his government would restore the rule of law.
But hours after the commission released its findings, Mahathir described the report as “hearsay,” according to state-run news agency Bernama.
“I think they must produce some evidence. This is merely hearsay, I don't know whether they have evidence to prove that this was what happened,” Mahathir told reporters.
Asked whether a special task force on the disappearances would be created, Mahathir emphasized that the human rights panel needed to show clear evidence.
“If they have clear evidence (then) we will have special task force to investigate,” he said.
Abduction linked by police to drug suspect
Suhakam, which was established by the Malaysian parliament in April 2000, is a government institution that conducts fact-finding investigations on complaints of rights abuses. It said it launched its public inquiry on the two abductions after receiving statements from individuals.
In its report, the commission said officers had earlier presented evidence linking a suspected drug trafficker to Koh’s abduction. That suspect was shot dead in an alleged police shootout in June 2017, four months after Koh’s disappearance.
“There was direct surveillance on the activities carried out by both Pastor Raymond Koh and Amri Che Mat in their respective organizations before their disappearances,” the commission said.
According to statements from police officers, Koh “is missing and that his whereabouts are to date unknown,” the report said.
“Following the Panel’s findings, it is up to the police to properly investigate and bring to book the culprit or culprits responsible,” the report said. “For starters, an experienced investigating officer should be appointed to reinvestigate the case.”
The families of the victims need some closure and answers that can only be provided by the State, it said, adding that the commission believed “that those who have been put in charge so far are withholding the answers to these questions, or are refusing to undertake a diligent exercise to discover them.”
Islamic authorities generally consider apostasy a crime in Muslim-majority Malaysia, where proselytizing Muslims is outlawed in most states and Shia Muslims are also persecuted by religious officials, human rights groups say.
Besides Koh and Amri, Pastor Joshua Hilmi and his Indonesian wife, Ruth Sitepu, have also been reported missing since 2016. But the public inquiry into the couple’s disappearance has not commenced to date, the report said.
‘Will they return them to us?’
After the report was released, Koh's his wife, Susanna Liew, and Amri's wife, Norhayati Mohd Ariffin, told reporters they would like to get an answer to their main question.
“Will they return them to us?” said Norhayati, a mother of three. “What is the status of my children? … Are they orphans?”
Liew, calling her husband's disappearance an “ambiguous loss,” wanted closure.
“Of course, we hope our husbands will be returned to us. If not, we want to know what happened to them. We need closure,” she said. “We don’t know (if) we are widows.”
‘There is no such directive given by me’
Responding to the commission’s findings, former Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told reporters that he did not instruct members of the Special Branch to abduct Koh and Amri.
“There is no such directive given by me or the chief secretary of the ministry,” he said. “I hope the investigation will be carried out professionally.”
Meanwhile, Sevan Doraisamy, a member of Citizens Action Group on Enforced Disappearance (Caged), an NGO, called on current Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to speak up on the commission’s report.
“The minister should step in and initiate moves to actively find out the whereabouts of the two men,” he told BenarNews. “This is a serious crime.”
Former national police chief Khalid Abu Bakar told the commission’s fact-finding panel in October 2017 that officers were not involved in the abductions. BenarNews could not immediately reach Khalid on Wednesday for comment.
Police Inspector-General Mohamad Fuzi Harun, who was chief of the Special Branch at the time of the two men's abductions, told reporters in Johor state, where he was on a two-day official visit, that he would only issue a reaction after reading the commission’s findings.
“Let me read the report first before I can officially issue a statement on the matter,” he told the Malay Mail newspaper.