Kidnapped for doing good in Malaysia

Mysterious disappearance of Christian pastor and social activist remains unsolved in a country with deep divisions 
Kidnapped for doing good in Malaysia

The Petronas Twin Towers dominate Kuala Lumpur's skyline. Questions are being asked about the rule of law in Malaysia after forced disappearances. (Photo by Jack Robinson/ reporter, Kuala Lumpur
March 20, 2018
A long shadow hangs over justice and the rule of law in Malaysia. One year on since the mysterious abduction and disappearance of a Christian pastor, suspicion has grown that this is no ordinary snatch case.

The case highlights deep social, religious and political polarization that will complicate reform efforts. Recent events support this bleak outlook.

The shadow of the state as indirectly complicit in the kidnapping has grown starker since Jan. 16 when the Malaysia Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) abruptly stopped a public inquiry into the disappearance of 62-year-old Pastor Raymond Koh, missing since Feb. 13, 2017.

The panel's inquiry had been presenting the police as unable or unwilling to conduct a serious investigation.

Malaysian police accounts of events were savagely mauled at the inquiry. Witnesses at the inquiry, which was well into its second week, revealed details of the kidnapping, including how it appeared to be conducted in less than a minute with military-style precision.

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CCTV footage of the scene showed half a dozen men in balaclavas exit black SUVs used to block the pastor's car on a public road in a leafy suburb near Kuala Lumpur in broad daylight and bundle him into one of the SUVs. He has not been seen since.

The inquiry was halted after the commission received a letter from Malaysian police chief Mohamad Fuzi Harun saying a court hearing was pending on the abduction.

The accused, part-time driver Lam Chang Nam, was originally charged with extorting 30,000 ringgit (about US$8,000) in March 2017 from Koh's son Jonathan for the release of his father. At the time police said he was just an opportunist who was unemployed and trying to capitalize on the lack of any prior ransom requests.

On Jan. 15, however, Lam was charged with kidnap, an offense punishable by hanging.

Koh's family were surprised by the sudden announcement. Police had not informed them about this latest development. Their lawyer, Gurdial Singh Nijar, said his clients were skeptical about the timing of the new charge.

He explained that the pastor's family felt police had been obstructive throughout their ordeal and had tried to thwart the inquiry. They felt the charge was another way to prevent disclosure of what truly happened to Pastor Koh.

The kidnapping charge was all the more surprising given that police had earlier stated that the accused was not involved. Lam's lawyer, Aaron Mark Pius, said he was shocked by the new and more serious charge against his client.

The new twist after a year adds weight to the notion that the police are uncomfortable with public revelations about their handling of the case, which appears interwoven with religious bias, intolerance of minorities and political expediency.

Malaysian Muslims practice a moderate version of Sunni Islam, but in recent years the country has seen the coalition government woo vocal Islamist groups and their supporters as a buffer against its waning popularity.

Some critics see disappearances of activists as a transparent ploy to win religious votes.

Koh's role as a Christian activist, at a time when Malaysia is moving to enforce stricter Islamic laws, has always appeared a likely cause for his forced disappearance.

The pastor was accused in 2011 of proselytizing Muslims, an offence in the Muslim-majority nation. He was investigated by Islamic authorities but the allegations were later dropped. However, a box containing two bullets, with a note written in Malay threatening his life, was delivered to his house shortly after.

Koh's forced disappearance mimics that of another social activist, Amri Che Mat, who went missing in November 2016. There has also been concern over the disappearance in the same month of another pastor, Joshua Hilmi, and his wife, Ruth.

Reports point to the fact that no ransom has been demanded, implying the abductors are well financed and those behind them driven by ideology. A reward of 100,000 ringgit from Koh's family for any information that could lead to his rescue remains unclaimed.

The four who have vanished without a trace are all linked by their philanthropic activism.

While Koh, Helmi and Ruth are Christian pastors, Amri Che Mat's disappearance has been linked to allegations that he had attempted to spread Shia teachings banned by religious authorities. His wife, Norhayati Ariffin, scoffs at such assertions.

Theories that state authorities may have turned a blind eye are gaining strength. The Malaysian Bar says the "unprecedented, mysterious" vanishings have led to "public perception and speculation ... of forced disappearances," a term which usually refers to state-sponsored abductions.

Many commentators are convinced the disappearances are setting a precedent of allowing bigotry to override basic human rights in Malaysia.

The government of Prime Minister Najib Razak, already under fire over rampant corruption and abuse of power, risks more condemnation if it cannot catch and punish vigilante abduction squads.

Vigils have been held regularly since Pastor Koh's abduction and hundreds have attended, including church leaders, political party leaders and social activists.

But, with answers not forthcoming, a clear message is being sent that authorities are unreceptive to how many feel about growing religious intolerance in the multicultural nation.

Whatever now happens, the disappearance of Koh, the Hilmis and Amri Che Mat will not fade from public view.

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