By: John Berthelsen

On Feb. 13, 2017, three black SUVs surrounded the car of a Chinese Christian pastor named Raymond Koh as he left his home in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Petaling Jaya. Also involved were two following cars, two motorcycles, and at least 15 individuals wearing ski masks.  Koh was dragged out of the car and was never seen again. The kidnapping occurred less than 100 meters from a police station.

Later, a social activist named Peter Chong disappeared after attending a vigil for Koh. In all, five people were abducted over the next few weeks. Others who disappeared in the same kind of operations were a Shiite activist and charity founder named Amri Che Mat and another pastor, Joshua Hilmy, who had converted to Christianity from Islam, and his wife Ruth, also a pastor. None have ever been found. A fifth person individual, a civilian contract worker based at the police training center, also vanished. With two years having passed since the abductions, they are presumed to be dead.

Raymond Koh

Now, in a case certain to shake Malaysia, a country reeling from the after-effects of the massive 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal, in which as much as US$4.8 billion has disappeared and cost Prime Minister Najib Razak his job, the country’s Human Rights Commission, known by its Malay title Suhakam, after a two-year investigation, has issued a 196-page report that laid the blame on the elite Special Branch intelligence unit of the Royal Malaysian Police.

The panel found that police including the former Inspector General of Police, the country’s top cop, offered “dubious and contradictory testimony,” that they possibly fabricated evidence, that they attempted to derail proceedings by charging an innocent suspect and said Suhakam had no jurisdiction. The panel also charged that “certain individuals” within the state Islamic religious authorities had sought to exaggerate the threat of Shia Islam in Malaysia.

The kidnappings themselves in 2017 seemed to stem from growing religious intolerance in what putatively was one of the world’s most moderate and stable Muslim states. But as Asia Sentinel reported in the wake of Koh’s kidnapping on March 6, 2017, “two very worrying trends in Malaysia may have come together: the rise of religious intolerance and the use of murder as a political weapon.” Now, it appears, those concerns have come true.  

The case has raised a furor in Malaysia, with rights groups, lawmakers and Christian organizations demanding a new investigation. The Malaysian Bar, for instance, issued a statement saying it is “appalled at the finding unanimously reached by members of the panel.” The missing individuals, the bar said, appear to have been “the victims of enforced disappearance at the hands of the Special Branch of the headquarters of the Royal Malaysia Police in Bukit Aman.”

The law body called it “a damning indictment of the impunity exercised by this particular section of the Royal Malaysia Police (i.e., the Special Branch), which is privileged, and protected from scrutiny and accountability.

“The government has a responsibility to expeditiously and impartially investigate Suhakam’s findings into the enforced disappearances of Raymond Koh and Amri Che Mat,” said Amnesty International. “Allegations that the state, primarily through Bukit Aman, is responsible for the enforced disappearances of Raymond Koh and Amri Che Mat should not be dismissed.”

It is a question whether the Human Rights Commission would have gained any traction with the government led by the Barisan Nasional, or ruling national coalition, that was ousted by voters in May 2018. The government, now headed by once and current Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has ordered an investigation into the disappearances after first waffling. Other murders remain to be adequately addressed, including those of onetime Mongolian model and party girl Altantuya Shaariibuu, murdered by members of the Unit Tindakhan Khas, or Special Actions Unit, in 2006 at the orders of individuals who are still identified, and which played a part in a previous scandal over the purchase of French submarines. 

A well-informed source told Asia Sentinel that it was much more likely that Unit Tindakhan Khas, a commando unit that serves as the prime minister’s bodyguards and takes on other ominous roles, who carried out this spate of kidnappings. It was two members of Unit Tindakhan Khas — Sirul Azhar Umar, who is in Australian custody, and Azilah Hadri, who is in a Malaysian prison, who killed Altantuya Shaariibuu.

Other crimes waiting to be solved are the murder of former Prosecutor Kevin Morais, who was working on the 1MDB case and whose body was found in a cement barrel in a river, and Hussain Najadi, the former head of the Kuala Lumpur-based Ambank, who was killed in a parking lot in what was regarded as a property dispute. Najidi’s son, Pascal Najadi, a banking consultant in Moscow, continues to insist that his father’s death was connected to the 1MDB scandal.  

Despite the evidence of witnesses and the video showing Kho’s kidnapping, the police said they had no idea who had done it. As Asia Sentinel reported at the time, “Koh was viewed by some Christian groups as being too high-profile for his own good given the rise in Muslim fanaticism in what is supposed to be multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation. In 2011 Koh was accused by the Selangor Religious Affairs Department of trying to convert Malays to Christianity. However, the issue was dropped due to lack of evidence.”

As to the other cases, Joshua Hilmy’s conversion from Islam was an apostasy that once got him detained under Malaysia’s draconian Internal Security Act. Likewise, Amri was a Shi’ite in a Sunni country and was said to have been too active in practicing his faith.

As to who actually ordered the special operations units to conduct the alleged kidnappings, that remains unknown, although suspicion has fallen on an earlier inspector general of police, Khalid Abu Bakar. Although the natural tendency was for blame to fall on former Prime Minister Najib, who headed the government at the time, and his wife, Rosmah, the source said, they probably knew nothing of what was going on.

The National Human Rights Commission on Wednesday said only that the two-year investigation, requested out by an organization of friends, family and others called Citizens Against Enforced Disappearances (CAGED) found that the men were victims of “enforced disappearance” involving the special branch. It said the men had been targeted and abducted in similar fashion.

The body came to its decision after a panel of three commissioners listened to 40 witnesses over 45 hearing days, according to the report, reviewed 214 exhibits and received oral and written submissions from the families and the police. The panel produced one report for each case, with a total of 196 pages.

“If all these five people have been killed (we must prepare for this eventuality) then this also becomes a case of mass murder,” wrote an influential blogger named Syed Akhbar Ali. “We cannot remain quiet about this case. Many more Malaysians must come out and call for a thorough and complete investigation into the disappearances of ALL THESE PEOPLE.  You cannot abduct and kill people just because they want to worship a different god.”