A Malaysian woman whose Christian pastor-husband remains missing after police agents allegedly snatched him from his car in broad daylight urged new Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on Wednesday to fulfill an earlier promise to prosecute those behind the 2017 abduction.
Susanna Liew, the wife of Pastor Raymond Koh Keng Joo, made the appeal after she and 11 other women from around the world received a prestigious award in Washington from the U.S. State Department, which honored them for their individual courage amid adversity in their home countries.
“I met him with our lawyer and he assured us that he will look into it, get into the bottom of this,” Liew told BenarNews after Wednesday’s ceremony at the State Department.
She was referring to an April 2019 meeting with Muhyiddin, who was then serving as home minister in the previous government. On Sunday, Muhyiddin was sworn in as prime minister and head of a new ruling coalition by Malaysia’s king, after a week of political turbulence that followed the collapse of Mahathir Mohamad’s Pakatan Harapan government.
Liew said she met Muhyiddin after the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia – a parliamentary-backed investigative panel also known as Suhakam – released a 95-page report concluding that Koh and social activist Amri Che Mat were probably “abducted by State agents.”
“My hope and appeal is that since he is now the prime minister, he has the power to arrest, to prosecute the culprits who were involved in this case of enforced disappearance,” she said.
Liew spoke after accepting the 2020 International Women of Courage Award from U.S. first lady Melania Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“I still believe my husband is still alive,” Susanna told BenarNews hours after Mrs. Trump handed her a small acrylic plaque. “We have dreams, my family and I ... and we hold on to this hope that one day we will reunite with him.”
Mrs. Trump, who said she was inspired by the personal stories of each of the 12 women, noted that each of the recipients had risked their safety to help others.
“These are the faces of true heroism,” the first lady said during the event which was widely shared on social media.
While the State Department’s news release about the recipients mentioned that Pastor Koh was abducted “allegedly by state agents,” the probability that police authorities were involved in the abduction was not mentioned during the awarding ceremony.
“Susanna is being honored for her selfless dedication to fight on behalf of members of religious minorities who’ve disappeared in Malaysia or face persecution for their beliefs,” the master of ceremonies said as Liew stood, wearing a red traditional Malay dress.
“She has endured police harassment and death threats and never stopped actively pursuing justice,” the emcee said.
Women from around the world who have shown leadership, courage and “willingness to make sacrifices for others, especially in promoting women’s rights” qualify for the award, officials said.
U.S. embassies and diplomatic missions overseas nominate one woman of courage from their respective host countries, and the recipients are chosen from finalists selected by senior department officials.
The other 11 recipients of this year’s award were from Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Zimbabwe, and the Ele Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture in the Xinjiang region of northwestern China.
‘On a balance of probabilities’
In April 2019, Suhakam released a 95-page report detailing findings of its investigation, which focused on whether the disappearances of Koh and that of Amri 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 federal police’s Special Branch, headquartered in Kuala Lumpur.
Liew and Koh founded the Hope Community in 2004, a nonprofit organization that works with the poor, needy and marginalized. She previously served as a school principal and educator, according to the State Department news release.
The Suhakam report, which chipped away at police statements that Koh’s disappearance did not involve state agents, 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 with precision.
Pastor Koh was taken in broad daylight from a road near 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. Hours after the commission released its findings, then-Prime Minister Mahathir described the report as “hearsay,” according to state-run news agency Bernama.
On Feb. 12, Liew named two former national police chiefs, Mohamad Fuzi Harun and Khalid Abu Bakar, along with other officers, in a civil lawsuit filed at the Kuala Lumpur High Court.
“We really hope filing the civil suit will help to unravel the truth about the abduction,” she told BenarNews in a text message then.
The lawsuit alleges breach of constitutional and statutory rights for the abduction of Koh, failure to account or disclose his whereabouts, misfeasance in public office, conspiracy to injure and negligence, Liew said. The lawsuit did not include a request for damages to be paid should she win the lawsuit, her attorney said.
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 Hilmy and his Indonesian wife, Ruth Sitepu, have also been reported missing since November 2016. Joshua was a Malay Muslim who had converted to Christianity.
On Monday, the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS), a Jakarta-based NGO that deals with human rights issues in Indonesia, said in a statement that it had been appointed as legal assistants of Ruth Sitepu’s family during the ongoing Suhakam public inquiry into the couple’s disappearance.
“This public inquiry process was a last hope for the family after earlier, in February 2018, the family made a missing-person report to the Malaysian police, but there were no significant results at that time,” the statement said.
The Indonesian NGO issued its statement as Suhakam pursued its inquiry, which began last month, into the disappearances of Hilmy and Sitepu.
In October last year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom accused Malaysia of “religious freedom violations,” citing Pastor Koh’s and Amri’s abductions. The independent commission has placed Malaysia under its Tier 2 designation for the next most-serious level of religious freedom violations.