Updated at 5:17 p.m. ET on 2019-03-27
A decision to destroy a human trafficking camp soon after its discovery in the jungle near Malaysia’s border with Thailand and to delay for months the removal of corpses of Rohingya and Bangladeshis from mass graves hindered proper investigations, an independent inquiry alleged Wednesday.
The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) and legal activist group Fortify Rights questioned why authorities let four months pass after finding the camp in Wang Kelian on Jan. 19, 2015, before allowing forensics teams to remove scores of corpses. The groups released a joint 121-page report, “Sold Like Fish,” based on a multi-year investigation and more than 270 interviews.
“Malaysian authorities destroyed the human-trafficking campsite in Wang Kelian the day after it was discovered, potentially diminishing evidence that could have aided a police investigation. Malaysian authorities ordered a forensic team to exhume bodies in May 2015, more than four months after the gravesite was first discovered, without accounting for the delay,” the groups said in releasing their report at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur.
Many of the trafficking victims linked to the camp near the Thai border were Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladeshi nationals. They had been smuggled in overland across the Thai border after travelling by boat from Bangladesh and Myanmar.
“The four-month delay in exhuming bodies delayed post-mortem examinations and, in turn, hampered forensic specialists from identifying the cause of death of exhumed remains,” the groups said.
A forensic pathologist stated that investigators could determine the cause of death for only three of 150 bodies examined, according to the report.
These factors were among those that could “constitute obstruction of justice,” the groups alleged in their report without elaborating.
Malaysia’s Home Ministry office, former Police Inspector-General Khalid Abu Bakar and the Royal Malaysian Police did not respond Wednesday to requests for comment.
The official Malaysian announcement of the discovery of the graves came days after authorities in Thailand said they had found dozens of graves of Rohingya and Bangladeshi human trafficking victims at an abandoned camp along the frontier with Malaysia.
The discovery of the graves and camps on both sides of the border in May 2015 led to a humanitarian crisis in Southeast Asia. Thailand launched a crackdown on human-smuggling syndicates and prevented boatloads of illegal migrants from landing on its southwestern shores.
As a result, as many as 3,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi nationals, who were abandoned by their handlers in smuggling boats at sea, landed or were rescued in neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia.
Police justification for destruction
Malaysian government information about the number of corpses discovered in Wang Kelian was different. Based on information released from the Malaysian Home Ministry, 147 gravesites containing 130 human remains were found in Wang Kelian.
A senior police official assigned to the region in January 2015 told investigators he was contacted by two others who had discovered the camp on Jan. 19, 2015, the report claimed, adding that many people tried to escape when officers raided the camp hours later.
Authorities detained 38 men whom they suspected of being “undocumented foreign migrants” but were not linked to human traffickers.
Police ordered the camp destroyed the next day and the first forensic examination of the site occurred in March 2015, according to the report.
“The Royal Malaysian Police justified the destruction of the camp on Wang Burma hill in January 2015 as reasonable on the grounds that if it were not destroyed, foreigners or subversive agents may have misused it. The Royal Malaysian Police says it recorded photos of the camp and its tents,” the report stated.
‘The trafficking continues’
The discovery of similar camps and mass graves in Thailand led to a crackdown on human trafficking by the military government, as well as the arrests, prosecution of 102 suspected members of a transnational human smuggling ring. A three-star Thai general was among 62 who were convicted on trafficking-related crimes.
“Despite some measure of justice served through Thailand’s mass human-trafficking trial, many who were reportedly involved in the trafficking of Rohingya and Bangladeshis remain free or at large in the region and protections for survivors of human trafficking remain limited,” the report said.
Fortify Rights Chief Executive Officer Matthew Smith said human trafficking was allowed to continue because traffickers in many cases did not face meaningful legal consequences.
“As long as impunity continues, the trafficking continues. It is the same as the impunity in Myanmar for genocide, so that’s why the refugee crisis continues,” Smith said.
In Malaysia, 12 police officers and several foreign nationals were arrested shortly after the news of the camps went public.
In 2017, then-Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told reporters that the police were released from custody because of a lack of evidence. Four foreigners – two Myanmar nationals, a Bangladeshi and a Thai – were convicted on human trafficking charges and sentenced to prison.
The report by Suhakam and Fortify Rights came just weeks after the Malaysian government appointed a commission to examine the Wang Kelian camps. The Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI), launched on March 5, has a six-month deadline to investigate the camps through inquires of relevant investigators, witnesses and individuals.
“The government has set the task and responsibility of the RCI which among other things will cover the aspect of previous investigations into the incident through a reexamination of documents and evidence pertaining to the discovery of the makeshift migrant camp and gravesite in Wang Kelian, Perlis,” Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said at the time of the launch.
Through interviews with survivors of the camp in Wang Kelian, Fortify Rights officials could determine that traffickers knew that some of their victims would die because of torture, attorney Roger Polack said.
“Survivors reported to us that if they were not able to pay they would be beaten,” he said. “They poured boiling water on the survivors who could not pay and would call their relatives and ask for more money.”
Suhakam commissioner Jerald Joseph said his group aligned with Fortify Rights because of concerns regarding previous investigations.
“Regulatory bodies like us only come in when there is a gap,” Joseph said during the press conference launching the report. “The fact that we had to do our own investigation and interview all these people means that the gap is very wide.”