Putrajaya, Malaysia – Malaysia‘s government has set up a special taskforce to reinvestigate the kidnappings of two activists – Amri Che Mat and Raymond Koh – after the country’s human rights commission blamed the police’s intelligence branch for the abductions.
Home Affairs Minister Muhyiddin Yassin told reporters on Wednesday that the government established the taskforce because of the seriousness of the allegations raised by the commission, known as Suhakam.
“With this special taskforce, it is hoped that justice can be provided to all affected parties,” the home ministry said in a statement.
Koh, a Christian pastor and activist, was kidnapped by masked men as he drove along a suburban Kuala Lumpur street on the morning of February 13, 2017.
The 62-year-old’s abduction, captured on CCTV cameras, shocked the country. The outcry brought attention to the disappearance of Amri Che Mat, a Shia Muslim, who was kidnapped in the northern state of Perlis in November 2016. Mat, like Koh, worked with the poor and underprivileged.
After a public inquiry that took more than a year, Suhakam in April said the two men were “abducted by state agents, namely the Special Branch”.
Both men were taken from their cars by a group of people in several vehicles and were targeted by the religious authorities and police over allegations of proselytizing before their disappearances, the commission said.
Islam is Malaysia’s official religion, and while other faiths can be practised in “peace and harmony”, attempting to convert someone from Islam is a criminal offence. The government only recognises Sunni Islam, with religious authorities labelling Shia teachings as “deviant”.
The police have denied involvement in Koh and Amri’s abductions, but Suhakam said the two men were victims of enforced disappearances and called for a special taskforce to reinvestigate their cases.
It recommended the panel include independent investigators and exclude anyone connected to the E2 Division of the police’s Special Branch, the religious authorities or to the police’s initial investigation in to the abductions.
Muhyiddin said on Wednesday the six-member panel to reinvestigate the cases will be led by former High Court Judge Abdul Rahim Uda. It will also include Mokhtar Mohd Noor, a former director of the police’s legal department, and Zamri Yahya, the director of the police’s Integrity and Standards Compliance Department.
The minister did not share the panel’s terms of reference or a proposed start date, but said the taskforce will be required to present its final report to the cabinet within six months from the time it starts its work.
Abdul Rahim, chairman of the taskforce, told reporters the panel would do its work “fairly”.
However, the families of Koh and Amri expressed concern over the composition of the panel, noting Mokhtar had presented the final arguments on behalf of the police during Suhakam’s inquiry.
Norhayati Mohd Ariffin, Amri’s wife, said in a statement that while she and her daughters were glad the government was now “taking steps” to address the Suhakam inquiry’s findings, they were concerned the panel’s composition would affect “the independence and impartiality necessary for a credible investigation”.
Susanna Liew, Koh’s wife, and her three children, also pointed out the lack of women, ethnic minorities and members of civil society on the panel, despite Suhakam’s recommendation the panel reflect Malaysia’s multi-ethnic society.
“If a police officer who participated in the Suhakam hearing can be appointed into the taskforce then a lawyer from each of the families should also be appointed in order to ensure a balanced and fair approach to the investigation and the report to be submitted,” the family said in a statement.
“We find this totally unacceptable and believe that in any part of the democratic civilised world, this would not happen.”
Koh’s family also rejected Muhyiddin’s decision to investigate Amri’s case and delay the pastor’s case. He blamed the move on the ongoing prosecution of a driver accused of trying to extort money from Koh’s son in the wake of the kidnapping. Police have previously said that case was not linked to Koh’s abduction.
Koh’s family said the disappearances of both Koh and Amri should be investigated together given the similarities established by Suhakam.
Koh’s abduction, captured on CCTV cameras, showed his vehicle being forced to the side of the road by a number of pick-up trucks and cars. A group of men in black balaclavas then took him away as others kept traffic at bay. In Amri’s case, an eye witness said he saw three vehicles boxing in the activists’ car on the night of his disappearance.
Meanwhile, others raised concern over the inclusion of an official from the police’s integrity department on the investigative panel, noting the watchdog body had failed to act on Suhakam’s findings or the families’ complaints over police conduct.
“It’s three months since the Suhakam report came out,” said Rama Ramanathan, a human rights activist who is part of the Citizen Action Group on Enforced Disappearance.
“Even before that the police knew what the families were submitting and knew what the likely outcome would be, but this integrity office took no action. [It] has no integrity and in my opinion is a totally ineffective department.”
Police interrogations 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.
Meanwhile, Norhayati found herself being asked repeatedly about whether her husband was attempting to spread Shia teachings.
As a result of the “serious anguish and suffering” caused by the police investigation, Norhayati submitted a compensation claim to the government at the end of last month, she said.
A week after Amri’s kidnapping, Joshua Hilmy, also a Christian pastor, and his Indonesian wife Ruth Sitepu also disappeared in unusual circumstances after leaving their house in Kuala Lumpur. Suhakam also planned to investigate their disappearances but ran out of time.