Malaysia on Wednesday opened a fresh probe into whether state agents were involved in the disappearances of a Christian clergyman and a Shia Muslim activist, but relatives of the missing said the new task force could be biased because several of its members were police.
The six-member panel headed by former High Court Judge Rahim Uda will look into recent findings by the National Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) that Pastor Raymond Koh and activist Amri Che Mat were, “on a balance of probabilities,” the victims of enforced disappearances carried out by police officers.
As he introduced the task force members to the media on Wednesday, Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said the government viewed Suhakam’s allegations against the Royal Malaysia Police, particularly those linking members of its Special Branch to the men’s disappearances, as a serious matter.
“The report made by Suhakam has created a lot of perception issues,” the minister told reporters in Putrajaya, Malaysia’s administrative capital.
“The Home Ministry views the findings by the commission on their disappearance seriously, and thus the need for a detailed evaluation of the report in the interest of fairness to all the parties,” Muhyiddin said.
The task force will be independent but the presence of senior police officials on it did not represent a conflict of interest, the minister said, because “the appointments of police top brass were not of those implicated in the [Suhakam] report,” according to Bernama, the state news agency.
The task force has a six-month deadline to complete the investigation and present its report to the home minister, who will then share it with the cabinet.
When it issued its report on April 3, the parliament-backed rights commission urged the government to create a task force to investigate what it declared were “enforced disappearances” in the cases of Amri and Koh, who vanished in November 2016 and February 2017, respectively.
Two days later, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said that his government would launch a new probe into the disappearances of the two men. Police had earlier denied allegations that officers were behind their disappearances, but police investigations into the cases remain open.
The other five members of the task force are: Mokhtar Mohd Noor, former head of the Malaysian police department’s legal office; Zamri Yahya, director of the police’s Integrity and Standard Compliance unit; Muhammad Bukhari Ab. Hamid, operations director for the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission, a government body; Mohd Russaini Idrus, division secretary for the Police Commission; and Mohd Sopian Zakaria, an officer from the prosecutor’s division of the Attorney-General’s Chambers.
Despite the participation of three police officers on the task force, Muhyiddin expressed confidence that the panel would be unbiased.
“All the three panel members are not from the special branch,” the home minister assured reporters.
But the families of both men disputed that claim.
Koh’s family issued a statement later in the day expressing “grave concerns” about the composition of the task force, citing a lack of gender and racial diversity on the all-male and all-Malay panel, as well as the fact that half of its members are with the police.
Koh is a member of Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese and Christian minority, and Amri is a member of the Shia Muslim minority.
Koh’s family singled out Mokhtar Mohd Noor, the chief of legal affairs for the Royal Malaysia Police, who had previously made the closing arguments on behalf of the force at the Suhakam inquiry.
“If a police officer who participated in the Suhakam hearings can be appointed into the task force, then a lawyer from each of the families should also be appointed,” the statement from Koh’s family said.
“We find this totally unacceptable and we believe that in any part of the democratic civilized world, this would not happen,” the family said.
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.
Rights groups had earlier said the pastor was likely targeted over the belief that he preached Christianity to Muslims, a claim vehemently denied by Koh’s wife, Susanna Liew.
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.
Amri’s wife, Norhayati Mohd Ariffin, issued a statement Wednesday saying the family was glad that the government was moving to address the allegations in the Suhakam report.
However, Amri’s family also said it was “concerned about the composition of the task force and how it would impact the independence and impartiality necessary for a credible investigation,” according to the New Straits Times newspaper.
Separately, an advocacy group called the Citizens Action Group on Enforced Disappearances (CAGED), questioned the appointment of police officer Zamri Yahya, whose unit handles issues to do with the police force’s internal affairs.
“Zamri’s appointment is absolutely outrageous because his department should be within the scope of investigation of the task force,” CAGED said in a statement.
The appointments to the task force demonstrate that Malaysia’s government has no interest in holding complicit police personnel and their defenders accountable in the suspected abductions of Koh and Amri, CAGED said.
“A credible task force will restore honor to PDRM by unearthing the truth and punishing miscreant officers,” the group said, referring to the police department by its acronym.