The family of a Christian pastor who was abducted eight months ago lived in such fear that they considered emigrating to Australia, but he decided to stay in Malaysia, his tearful wife told a fact-finding panel on Friday.
Pastor Raymond Koh Keng Joo, 62, was snatched by a group of men in broad daylight on the morning of Feb. 13, when they forced his car to a stop as it exited a highway in Petaling Jaya, near Kuala Lumpur. Koh, a member of Malaysia’s Christian minority, has been missing ever since.
His wife, Susanna Liew, said the family had been living in fear of death threats since 2011, when an NGO headed by Koh was accused of trying to convert Muslim youths to Christianity, an act that is considered illegal in Malaysia. Their troubles began when officers with the Islamic Religious Department in Selangor state raided a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by Koh and attended by Muslims.
“I thought about migrating to Australia but my husband loves this country. He wanted to stay in Malaysia,” Liew told a three-man panel set up by the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam), a government body.
The mysterious circumstances behind Koh’s disappearance led to a media blitz that eventually brought to light more alleged cases of enforced disappearances, a term used to describe abductions involving law-enforcement authorities.
The publicity prompted the Malaysian Bar Association, the country’s most respected group representing lawyers, to issue a strongly worded statement back in April that called on the authorities to investigate the cases thoroughly.
“It is shocking and outrageous that a growing number of Malaysians could inexplicably disappear and not be found for days, weeks and months. This has never happened before in this country, to the best of our knowledge, and has led to public perception and speculation of the occurrence of forced disappearances,” the association said at the time.
The panel appointed by Suhakam is probing allegations that Koh and three other people were victims of such enforced disappearances. This week, the panel opened a 10-day public inquiry into the cases.
On Thursday, the first day of the hearings, Suhakam commissioner Mah Weng Kwai emphasized that the probe panel was neither a criminal nor civil trial.
“The whole idea is to arrive at truth and justice,” Mah told panel members.
Kidnapped in daylight
Police officials have confirmed that Koh was abducted, but they cautiously used the term “missing people” to classify the other cases that took place separately in 2016.
Koh’s abduction was captured by a security camera that filmed several SUVs and motorcycles surrounding his car, forcing him to stop before he was taken away. His car has not been found.
Koh led a Kuala Lumpur-based nongovernmental organization, called Harapan Komuniti (Hope Community), which performs charity work in poor communities.
In 2011, Islamic authorities investigated Koh’s NGO over allegations that it hosted a Thanksgiving dinner with Muslim attendees at a church, according to newspaper reports.
The Islamic probe took place after published accusations that he had tried to convert Muslim youths to Christianity when his group hosted a party at a church in the Muslim-majority country that considers apostasy a criminal offense.
But on Friday, Koh’s wife said he had repeatedly told his NGO volunteers to abstain from preaching any religious message.
“Raymond specifically told volunteers during their orientation not to preach, never to talk about religion,” she replied when asked whether the NGO had any intention to spread or preach Christianity.
“This warning was given verbally and all activities there were inclusive and included all races and there was no intention to preach any religion,” Liew said.
The NGO ran a variety of programs that helped prison inmates and people with HIV/AIDS, regardless of their religious background, she said.
‘They asked if there were Muslims’
Liew, 61, said she was at the Thanksgiving dinner with her husband in August 2011 when about 50 law-enforcement officers, including religious authorities, entered the church.
“We asked about a warrant but they said they don’t need one because there was a complaint,” she said. “They just rushed in without any permission at a private function and started recording.”
Liew said an officer from the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (JAIS) told her that they had received reports about the presence of Muslims at the event.
“They asked if there were Muslims, and yes there were because there were stakeholders and supporters, the people whom we helped, volunteers and other donors,” she said.
After the raid, 12 Muslims were asked to appear before JAIS for questioning, Liew told the panel, led by commissioners Mah Weng Kai, Aishah Bidin and Nik Salida Suhaila.
The incident, according to Liew, brought negative publicity to her family and led to death threats.
“We had people taking photos of us like paparazzi and then they would get into cars and started following us,” she said.
On Aug. 26, 2011, Koh filed a police report after receiving a package with two bullets in a small box that also contained sheets of paper printed with death threats written in red ink, she said.
Blog postings claim the couple had been Muslims before becoming Christians and that they converted others to the religion.
Liew told the inquiry that she was terrified and urged her husband to leave the country.
“Photos of me and my husband, of our house, our address are all posted on the Internet with messages for people to take action against us,” she said.
Koh’s disappearance at first appeared to be an isolated case of kidnapping, but as the case gained publicity, more reports of missing Malaysians came out, including that of social activist Amri Che Mat, Pastor Joshua Hilmi and his wife, Ruth Sitepu,
Amri, co-founder of a local NGO, was allegedly abducted from his car on Nov. 24, 2016, in the northern state of Perlis. His wife has denied allegations that he was spreading Shia Muslim teachings, which are frowned upon in Sunni Muslim-majority Malaysia.
Hilmi and Ruth, both Christian preachers, were last seen on Nov. 30 at their home in Selangor state. A missing-person report, however, was not filed until March 6, officials said.
The panel has subpoenaed at least 15 people, including former police Inspector-General Khalid Abu Bakar, and interviewed 35 people.
The first witness during the 10-day public inquiry that began on Thursday said a police inspector had told him that Koh’s abduction happened swiftly and looked like a police operation.
Koh’s abduction took place in just under a minute and was witnessed by other drivers who later filed police reports.