Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Almost four years after the grisly discovery in Malaysia of 139 graves of Rohingya and Bangladeshis believed to be victims of human trafficking, authorities in the country have not prosecuted any Malaysians for the deaths, according to a new report by rights groups.
Released on Wednesday by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) and Fortify Rights, the joint report said it had found “reasonable grounds” to believe that a human-trafficking syndicate committed crimes against humanity in Malaysia and Thailand against Rohingya men, women, and children from 2012 to 2015.
The Sold Like Fish report documents how Malaysian authorities destroyed a human-trafficking campsite in Wang Kelian, in the northern state of Perlis, the day after its discovery in January 2015 – in a move that potentially diminished evidence that could have aided a police investigation.
In May 2015, Malaysian police said they had found 139 graves, some containing more than one body, around dozens of camps scattered along the border in Perlis.
The discovery was preceded by the finding of a mass grave containing more than 30 bodies in a forested area in Thailand, near the Malaysian border, on April 30, 2015.
“In contrast, since 2015, Malaysian courts convicted only four foreign persons of trafficking-related offences connected to the mass graves discovered in Wang Kelian,” the groups’ report said.
According to SUHAKAM Commissioner Jerald Joseph, Malaysian police did not “pursue further” investigations as it requires the extradition of “several” people from Thailand.
“Malaysian police could not move forward as they need seven people in Thailand to be extradited … that was the answer they [police] gave us the last two years,” Joseph told a press conference in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, adding that he did not know who those seven people were.
Asked whether any Malaysians would be prosecuted in the near future, Joseph said: “I think the day has to arrive, it is around the corner.”
“There is no way death camps on Malaysian soil can happen without local connivance or cooperation by some individuals or some officer of the network,” said Joseph.
‘Massive’ loss of life
In January, Malaysia’s new government set up a Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) to probe the Wang Kelian tragedy.
The groups welcomed the RCI’s establishment as “a step in the right direction to hold perpetrators accountable and ensure appropriate reparations for those affected” and called for further investigations to determine the extent of responsibility and involvement of Malaysian authorities in the trafficking of Rohingya and Bangladeshis from 2012 to 2015.
The groups’ report also highlighted how a criminal syndicate – a group of individuals or organisations working together for criminal interests – deceived Rohingya refugees to board ships bound for Thailand and Malaysia and then abused them.
Traffickers piled hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees into repurposed fishing vessels and deprived them of adequate food, water and space, committing torture and, in some cases, rape at sea.
Traffickers murdered captives and many committed suicide at sea, the groups said.
The report documents how, once onshore, members of the syndicate held victims in conditions of enslavement in remote camps along the Malaysia-Thailand border, including in Wang Kelian, demanding upwards of $2,000 for their release.
Traffickers denied their captives access to adequate food, water and space, resulting in death, illness and injury – including paralysis, particularly among those unable to pay money.
Traffickers from Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia tortured Rohingya captives with pipes, bats, clubs, belts, wires, tasers, nails, threats and intimidation, and other means, the groups said.