Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – A Malaysian human rights commission inquiry into the abduction of two people more than two years ago has found that the pair was probably disappeared by the intelligence branch of the country’s police.
The three-member panel, which began investigating the cases in October 2017, called on the government to open a new and independent investigation and criticised parts of the official investigation into one of the cases as an “affront to common sense and logic”.
The families “need some closure and answers can only be provided by the state”, Mah Weng Kwai, a retired Court of Appeal judge who headed the panel of inquiry, said on Wednesday.
“It is believed that those who have been put in charge so far are withholding the answers to these questions or are refusing to undertake a diligent exercise to discover them. Hence, a new and separate task force needs to be set up.”
Social activist and Christian Pastor Raymond Koh, 62, was kidnapped by masked men as he drove along a suburban Kuala Lumpur street on the morning of February 13, 2017.
The abduction, captured on CCTV cameras, shocked the country. Koh’s disappearance led to the revelation that Amri Che Mat, a Shia Muslim who, like Koh, worked with the poor and underprivileged, had been kidnapped in the northern state of Perlis in November 2016.
A week later, Joshua Hilmy, a pastor, and his Indonesian wife Ruth Sitepu also disappeared in unusual circumstances after leaving their house in Kuala Lumpur. The inquiry also planned to investigate their disappearances but was not able to in the time allotted.
At the inquiry, Amri’s wife Norhayati Mohd Ariffin, wept as Mah offered the human rights commission’s apologies for the “grief, anxiety and sadness” that she and her children suffered.
“We would like to see the perpetrators, the ones responsible and involved in this, to be brought to book,” said Koh’s wife Susanna Liew, after the commission announced its findings.
“We want to see justice and we want the truth to be revealed. We still don’t know what happened to our husbands,” she added, showing the frustration on the families’ part with the lack of progress made by the police.
Police questioning in the immediate aftermath of Koh’s disappearance focussed on allegations that he was trying to convert young Muslims to Christianity, Liew and her children told the inquiry.
Norhayati, meanwhile, found herself being asked whether Amri was attempting to spread Shia teachings.
Islam is Malaysia’s official religion but other faiths can be practised in “peace and harmony”. About 61 percent of the population is Muslim, and attempting to convert someone out of Islam is a criminal offence. Shia teachings have been labelled “deviant” by the religious authorities.
“Four is not just a number,” said Mohammad Faizal Musa, an academic at Malaysia’s National University, referring to the four missing people.
“It represents significant religious minorities. There are Christians and there are Shia [Muslims]. It goes back to the Malaysia-Saudi Arabia relationship, to Malaysia’s failure to recognise minorities any more and to investment. It is a serious matter.”
Liew said the families would consider legal action if the government did not act on the commission’s findings within six months.
The inquiry took place over 45 days and heard testimony from 40 witnesses, including a lawyer who witnessed Koh’s abduction, the police officers in charge of the investigation, Special Branch officers, family members, friends and the now-retired inspector general of police, Khalid Abu Bakar.
Between 1980 and 2016, the UN’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances were informed of only two cases of enforced disappearance from Malaysia.
Koh and Amri’s disappearances highlighted an “ugly spectre” in Malaysian life, the lawyers for the families wrote in their final submission to the inquiry.
“The evidence points to circumstances suggesting that the organs of the state either orchestrated the abduction, or supported it; or, at a minimum, had knowledge of the act and stood by to allow the act to occur or continue,” the lawyers concluded.
The commissioners were also told how both men were threatened before their disappearances.
After a 2011 fund-raising dinner was broken up by Islamic religious authorities and the police, Koh was sent two bullets in the post. His wife was mailed an envelope, filled with white powder, with the words “We want to kill you” written in Malay.
‘Freedom of religion’
The commissioners noted that both men were monitored because of their beliefs and called on the authorities, including the police and Islamic authorities, to respect the “fundamental right to freedom of religion” spelled out in Malaysia’s constitution.
The state’s mufti visited Amri after he had come to the attention of the religious authorities in Perlis. Norhayati detailed in her police statement that her husband had been monitored by the Special Branch, the intelligence arm of the police, and taken by them without the knowledge of the regular force.
The police did not attend the panel findings, despite being invited, although officers had attended earlier sessions.
During the inquiry, police witnesses often said they could not remember what happened or that they could not reveal details because of the Official Secrets Act.
In their written submissions to the inquiry, which was obtained by Al Jazeera, it said there was no evidence of police involvement, investigations were continuing and any new leads would be followed up.
After the CCTV footage of Koh’s abduction was played to the commissioners, showing seven vehicles and 15 men kidnapping the pastor, most of the men wearing black balaclavas, former police chief Khalid dismissed the evidence.
“These are all learned from the movies,” he said to the amazement of those present. “They try to emulate that.”
Khalid set up a special taskforce to investigate the kidnappings, and the police suggested that a drug-smuggling gang involved in a fatal shoot-out in northern Malaysia had taken Koh, saying they had found photos of the pastor while searching the group’s house.
During the inquiry, the families’ lawyers pointed out inconsistencies in the police account of the incident and the discovery of the photos.
Mah dismissed the police account as “full of inconsistencies and material contradictions” and an “affront to common sense and logic”.
The families’ lawyers also revealed that a car seen parked outside Amri’s house prior to his disappearance was also present at Koh’s kidnapping.
The vehicle was traced to a police officer who had worked for the force for 18 years but when the human rights commission sought to interview him, the police said the officer was no longer serving and could not be located.
Questions were also raised about the police’s sudden decision to charge an Uber driver, Lam Chang Nam, for Koh’s kidnapping, even though he had earlier been ruled out as a suspect – a decision which forced the suspension of the inquiry.
Lam’s trial is yet to begin; he is due in court on April 17.
The inquiry’s term ended before it could investigate the other two disappearances.