A marriage struggling to materialize

Disappearance of activists shows democracy and rule of law are failing to mix with religious pluralism in Malaysia
A marriage struggling to materialize

The failure of Malaysian authorities to adequately address disappearances of religious activists shows the fundamental right to religious freedom is seriously lacking in the Muslim-majority country. (Photo by Manan Vatsyayana/AFP)

Just over three months ago, I sat in a packed room in Malaysia’s National Human Rights Commission to hear the results of a public inquiry into the disappearances of two religious activists — a Christian pastor, Raymond Koh, and a social activist accused of having an interest in Shia Islam, Amri Che Mat.

The Human Rights Commission’s inquiry, chaired by former Court of Appeal Judge Mah Weng Kwai, concluded that the Special Branch of the Malaysian police were responsible.

The judge added that both these men had been investigated for alleged offenses by state Islamic authorities before their disappearances.

The commission urged the Malaysian authorities to respect freedom of religion or belief “as a fundamental human right.”

It also called on the Malaysian government to establish a special task force to investigate the disappearances, introduce police reforms, ensure a clear demarcation between the police and religious authorities, and ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

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The atmosphere in the room was electric. Finally a public inquiry had the courage to confirm what most people already assumed.

The families of the two disappeared men smiled and celebrated, initially a surprising reaction to the news about the fate of their loved ones, but one which came from a sense of relief: at last the truth was out.

Three months on, the case is far from resolved. After initial hesitation, the Malaysian government did establish a task force. But they put the former Malaysian Police Legal Unit chief Mokhtar Mohd Noor and another police officer on it, a decision that drew huge criticism from the families of the two disappeared men.

Raymond Koh’ wife, Susanna Liew, said the government had ignored the family’s suggestion that a member of the Bar Council, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and a representative of an NGO be included on the task force.

Only if the composition of the task force was truly independent would it provide a “trustworthy and fair” investigation.

Mokhtar Mohd Noor’s appointment is especially alarming, given that he represented the police at the Human Rights Commission hearing. He recused himself earlier this month, but nevertheless, the fact that he was appointed hardly inspires confidence.

“If a police officer who participated in the Suhakam hearing can be appointed to the task force, then a lawyer from each of the families should also be appointed in order to ensure a balanced and fair approach,” Susanna Liew added. “We find this totally unacceptable.”

Others have called for a resolution to the case, including the National Patriots Association (Patriot), whose president, retired Brigadier-General Mohamed Arshad Raji, said Malaysians want “fast closure.”

He criticised the government for “procrastination” and expressed concern about the composition of the task force, saying it “does not inspire confidence.”

Shocking lack of urgency

The key concern about the task force, however, is that it has no teeth. No terms of reference have been published and, according to the home minister, the task force’s role is to produce a report in six months’ time.

What use is another report when we already have the public inquiry’s report? If the task force has no statutory powers to conduct a new investigation, to question, arrest and prosecute those responsible, it is of little value.

The fact that it took three months after the Human Rights Commission’s report for the government to establish a task force suggests a shocking lack of urgency.

Moreover, the Human Rights Commission’s report was not the first time the disappearances had been brought to the government’s attention.

In May 2018, Amri Che Mat’s wife reached out to the newly elected government, after hearing from a whistleblower from Special Branch, and lodged a police report. The government did nothing — not even to protect whistleblowers.

Delaying justice is itself an injustice. It has been 31 months since the disappearance of Amri Che Mat, and 28 months since Pastor Koh’s.

On Nov. 24, 2016, social activist Amri Che Mat disappeared after he left his home at 11.30 p.m. Less than three months later, on Feb. 13, 2017, Pastor Raymond Koh was taken from his car at 10.45 a.m. by 15 men dressed in black clothes and balaclavas who surrounded his vehicle in three black cars.

Eyewitness reports and CCTV footage suggest that professionally trained men abducted Pastor Koh. In November 2016, another Christian couple, Joshua Hilmi and his Indonesian wife Ruth Sitepu, also disappeared.

Amri Che Mat was born and raised as a Sunni Muslim but, in the words of the inquiry’s decision, “later took an interest in Shi’ism”, which is illegal in Malaysia. He founded Perlis Hope, an organisation assisting the poor regardless of race or religion, but the authorities suspected it to be a Shia organisation.

Pastor Koh, previously a pastor at the Evangelical Free Church in Petaling Jaya, founded Harapan Komuniti (Hope Community), a non-profit organization that undertakes social and charity work among marginalized and underprivileged communities, including people living with HIV/AIDS, recovering drug addicts, single mothers and their children.

In 2011, about 30 officers from JAIS (Selangor Islamic Religious Department) raided a dinner organized by the NGO and the organizers were accused of proselytising Muslims. Although no one was prosecuted, Pastor Koh’s family received death threats in the aftermath.

Prior to their disappearances, both Amri Che Mat and Pastor Koh were under direct surveillance, according to the inquiry, and the nature of their abductions was similar.

The inquiry concluded that both men were “individuals targeted by religious authorities and the police on allegations that they were involved in matters against Islam in Malaysia.”

The election of the new government in Malaysia last year gave many people hope. The appointment of several non-Muslims to key ministerial positions in government was an encouraging sign that Malaysia’s days of religious identity politics must be numbered.

Yet the failure to tackle the enforced disappearances of religious activists allegedly by the state, and the apparent stitch-up of a task force to address the case, does not bode well.

Malaysia has a long way to go before it can marry its democracy and rule of law tradition with the religious pluralism and non-discrimination upon which such a tradition depends.

Benedict Rogers is East Asia team leader at human rights organization CSW. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.com. 

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