In a conference room in a Kuala Lumpur office tower, Susanna Liew waited anxiously for a decision from the Malaysian human rights commission on its enquiry into the disappearance of her husband, Raymond Koh—a well-known social worker and Christian pastor—almost a year before.
Under discussion was a surprise development in the case. The police had just informed the commission that they were about to charge a suspect in court; a man they had previously ruled out of their investigation. Citing a clause in the legislation relating to the conduct of the commission’s enquiries, the police wanted proceedings to stop.
The minutes ticked by. Journalists played with their phones. Lawyers and enquiry officials milled about. Notices taped up on the walls warned against taking photos.
Liew sat quietly.
Frustrated and disappointed at the seemingly glacial pace of the police investigation into the 62-year-old’s abduction, Liew and her adult children had turned to Suhakam, as the commission’s known in Malaysia, to provide them with some of the answers they so desperately wanted. Now, three months after the enquiry had begun in October 2017, the opportunity appeared to be slipping away.
As the three commissioners—led by lawyer and retired Court of Appeal judge Mah Weng Kai—returned to the room, everyone rose from their seats.
“We have decided we will immediately cease the enquiry (into Raymond Koh’s case), until further notice,” Mah announced to the room. “We will continue with the other two cases.”
At a hastily organised press conference with their lawyers, the family was unable to hide their disappointment.
“It’s very shocking for us,” Liew told journalists as she struggled to hold back her tears. Her two eldest children—Jonathan and Esther—sat close by. “Our hope in coming to Suhakam was to find some answers to the many questions we have of Pastor Raymond’s abduction, and we are very disappointed that even this hope of exercising our human rights to truth and justice is being denied to us.”
“It’s not easy not knowing where he is”
A month later, Liew is selling jewellery at a weekend market in a Kuala Lumpur shopping mall not far from where her husband disappeared. The semi-precious stones and pearl necklaces sparkle under the lights and one of her regular customers is trying on a necklace. “She brings in the best things,” the woman says, smiling and admiring the chain in the mirror.
Liew shows little outward sign of the anguish she must have endured since her husband’s disappearance (when the enquiry visited the street where he was snatched, Liew found it so upsetting she had to take a moment for herself, holding back from the crowd and finding comfort on a friend’s shoulder).
“Whether he’s alive or dead, he’s a hero to me”
Today she’s dressed in an elegant floral dress and cardigan, her hair neatly bobbed and a string of pearls at her neck, as she chats with the customers and the friend who’s come to help her out with the stall.
But over a cup of green tea latte, Liew admits some days are better than others.
“It’s not easy; not knowing where he is or how he’s being treated,” she says of the man she married in 1983. “Sometimes I just don’t want to go there, imagining what’s happened to him.
“How I cope is actually my deep faith in God,” she continues. “There’s a verse in the Bible—Romans 8.28—that God has his purpose. We don’t necessarily understand why or how he’s going to work out everything, but I believe that Raymond is in God’s hands. I just have to release Raymond to God. Whether he’s alive or dead, he’s a hero to me.” Liew’s voice cracks. She stops to wipe away the tears that have trickled down her cheek.
The couple first met at a Christian conference in Singapore back in 1977. Liew was 20 and Koh a couple of years older. She was drawn to the “quiet and humble” young man and they started chatting. Even then, his commitment to his faith was strong.
After getting married, the couple moved to New Zealand where Johor-born Koh spent nearly four years studying theology. When they returned to Malaysia in 1994, he got a job as a pastor at the Evangelical Free Church of Malaysia before devoting himself full-time to Komuniti Harapan, the community centre he had set up as a way to help Malaysia’s more vulnerable people. Liew, meanwhile, ran the home and looked after the couple’s three children: Jonathan, Esther and Elizabeth.
The last time the two saw each other was the morning of 13 February 2017, the day Koh disappeared. Liew had left their home for a friend’s place while her husband was still asleep, inadvertently taking with her a box of sambal belacan (a spicy shrimp paste) that he was supposed to be selling that afternoon. It was the kind of “good deed” that appealed to Koh, his wife says.
Koh stopped off to collect the box on his way to the office. “I love you,” he told Liew as he left. They expected to see each other later that afternoon when he was going to pick up his wife for a meeting in Klang, about an hour’s drive away.
The pastor set out from the apartment in his ageing silver Honda Accord on his usual route to the office, joining the vehicles jostling for space on one of the busiest highways in suburban Kuala Lumpur. Turning left onto a narrower road, he passed a school playing field, a few blocks of police apartments—the paint peeling and mouldy in the humidity—and rows of terraced single and double-storey houses. The road wasn’t particularly busy compared with the highway, but there was still plenty of traffic.
Shortly afterwards, Roshan Gomez, a 25-year-old trainee lawyer, turned into the road too. He and a friend had just come from a funeral and were on their way to the crematorium, but they could see something strange ahead of them—a few cars stopped on the side of the road and a group of people dressed in black, their faces covered with balaclavas. At first, the two friends thought it might be a movie shoot. As they got closer, they got the feeling it was something more sinister. Gomez’s friend reached for her mobile phone so she could film what was happening.
“An Indian man appeared in front of us,” Gomez recalled as the enquiry opened. “He stood in front of our car. He seemed agitated and was pointing at my friend.”
Fearful, Gomez put his car into reverse. His friend put her phone away.
Although they didn’t know it at the time, they were the main witnesses to a kidnapping. Koh’s Honda had been forced onto the grassy verge and was surrounded by black vehicles. Motorcyclists milled about. One man was apparently videoing the scene, as another, his face covered, struggled with Koh. In less than a minute, the social worker was gone, forced into one of the other vehicles, while another of the kidnappers jumped into the car and drove it away. The incident was captured on security cameras installed by some of the nearby homeowners, but neither Koh nor the Honda have been seen since.
Liew had no idea that anything had happened to her husband until the late afternoon when he failed to collect her for the meeting. Calls to his mobile went straight to voicemail. For someone with a reputation for being reliable, it was unusual, but Liew didn’t yet suspect anything untoward had happened.
Just over an hour later, Jonathan was on the line to say that the police had called the registered owner of Koh’s car to tell him the vehicle was suspected to have been used in the “kidnapping of kids”. It then emerged that Koh had missed the meeting. As Liew set off for the police station around 9pm that night, she says she had a “bad feeling” about what might have happened to her husband.
A rare abduction and the search for answers
Such brazen abductions are rare in Malaysia—between 1980 and 2016, the UN’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances received only two cases of enforced disappearance from Malaysia, and both were resolved—but Koh’s disappearance came at a time when a number of other people had also gone missing in strange, and still unexplained, circumstances.
Amri Che Mat, a Muslim community worker in the northern state of Perlis, was apparently abducted by a group of men about half a kilometre from his home in November 2016, while Joshua and Ruth Helmi, the former a Christian pastor and the latter an Indonesian Christian, haven’t been seen since November last year.
The incidents were unusual enough to raise concerns about enforced disappearances—defined by the UN as involving three cumulative elements: the deprivation of a person’s liberty against their will, the involvement of officials, at least by acquiescence, and a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or concealment of the fate or location of the missing person.
“It is extremely troubling that the spectre of enforced disappearance has reared its ugly head in Malaysia,” Dimitris Christopoulous, FIDH president said in a statement in May last year. “Malaysian authorities must immediately investigate the disappearances of Amri Che Mat and Raymond Koh in order to determine their whereabouts and safely return them to their families.”
“It is extremely troubling that the spectre of enforced disappearance has reared its ugly head in Malaysia”
It was the concern about enforced disappearance—and the infrequent reports to the families—that led to the Suhakam enquiry. Explaining its decision, the Commission noted the apparent lack of progress in the investigation “created public anxiety” while the “lack of information or regular updates by the authorities led to (the) allegation that these disappearances are indeed enforced or involuntary.”
From the beginning, Liew says questioning focussed more on Koh’s work with Komuniti Harapan and young Muslims than on his abduction. Even when she went to report her husband missing the police seemed more interested in “Christianisation and proselytisation,” she recalls. “I was wondering, “Why are they treating me like a suspect? I’m the victim.”
After five hours, she had had enough. “I said to the investigating officer, ‘What is important is that we go and find my husband.’” It was three o’clock in the morning.
Supported by friends and civil society, the family began organising vigils and publicising the case in the local media. A MYR100,000 (approx. USD25,129) reward was offered to anyone who provided information leading to Koh’s recovery, but relations with the police were becoming increasingly strained.
Difficulties with law enforcement
According to their lawyers, Koh’s family had just two briefings with the police after the pastor’s disappearance, even as senior officers spoke to reporters about developments in the case. Both took place in March.
At one of them, in the Chinese restaurant of Kuala Lumpur’s Hilton Hotel, Liew says then-police chief Khalid Abu Bakar expressed sympathy over Koh’s disappearance, but told the family not to publicise the case or speak to the media because it would put the pastor at risk.
Even at the enquiry, there were testy exchanges between the police, lawyers and commissioners. Officers often declined to provide answers, saying Koh’s disappearance was still under investigation or subject to the Official Secrets Act.
When Inspector Ali Asrar, the first officer to visit the crime scene, insisted he could not hand over his investigation diary without first consulting the Attorney-General’s Chambers, Mah, who was leading the inquiry, told him that Suhakam was legally entitled to see the diary and sent the commission’s officials to retrieve it.
Khalid, who retired in September, often replied that he “couldn’t remember” and prompted incredulous looks in the public gallery when he suggested the kidnappers weren’t necessarily professionals and could have worked out what to do from watching a few Hollywood films.
“The difficulty that Suhakam is facing is the same problem everyone in Malaysia is facing,” says Rama Ramanathan from the Citizen Action Group on Enforced Disappearance (CAGED), a non-profit set up to help the families of the missing. “A police force that’s not accountable to anyone.”
An additional complication: religion
Religion adds to the complexity. According to Malaysia’s Constitution, Islam is the country’s official religion with other religions to be practised “in peace and harmony”. About 61% of the country’s population—mainly the Malay majority—are Muslims, while just under 20% are Buddhist and about 7% Hindu. Around 9% of the population are Christian.
Proselytisation of Muslims and apostasy are both crimes in Malaysia, and Komuniti Harapan’s activities—offering a learning centre for children, some of them Muslims, to read and take classes, as well as support to single mothers and people living with HIV and AIDS—drew attention.
Matters reached a head in 2011, when enforcement officers from the Islamic affairs department appeared unannounced at a fundraising dinner the NGO was holding in an evangelical church hall.
Video footage of the raid uploaded online shows officials wearing baseball caps and reflective jackets questioning the organisers about the presence of Muslims. Koh later released a statement questioning the religious department’s decision to “disrupt a peaceful and harmonious charity event.”
At the Suhakam enquiry, Zaaba Zakaria, a state religious affairs officer, testified that the event was seen as “insulting” to Islam. Some 15 religious enforcement officers and 20 members of the police were involved in the raid, he added. Meanwhile, the police revealed some 78 reports had been lodged against Koh between 2011 and 2012.
In the weeks following the raid, Koh received death threats and bullets through the post. Liew says she was sent an envelope containing white powder. On it, scrawled in red in Malay were the words, “We want to kill you.” The police told Suhakam that tests showed the two bullets to be live, but that they had made no progress in finding the culprits.
Former police chief Khalid, meanwhile, revealed that Koh had been interviewed at least ten times over the religious nature of his activities.
Sri Ram KS Gopala Iyer, a director at Komuniti Harapan, testified that the police visited the group’s centre a number of times after the pastor disappeared—on one occasion going through documents, taking photographs and ripping out a student register—even though they had no search warrant. They later interviewed some of the youngsters who were regulars at the centre about whether they read the Bible there or were ever taken to church. Among them was a 12-year-old girl, but the interviews took place without parents or guardians present, Sri Ram said. While the police were interviewing the girl, they agreed to allow a female Komuniti Harapan administrator to sit outside with the door open.
Religion has also been at the centre of the three other cases being investigated by Suhakam.
Like Koh, Amri, who was reportedly abducted by as many as 15 people travelling in a five-vehicle convoy, caught the attention of religious authorities through his work with the poor and vulnerable. Amri wasn’t Christian, but he was Shia, considered a “deviant sect” in Malaysia.
The founder of an NGO called Perlis Hope, he was visited at home by the mufti of the state accompanied by about 20 police and Islamic officials, his wife, Norhayati Ariffin, told Suhakam.
The mufti, giving evidence later, said he had received complaints about Amri because he had expressed a belief in Shia. The social worker was free to follow its teachings, he told the enquiry, but only within the confines of his own home.
Much less is known about the cases of Joshua Helmi and his wife Ruth, both aged 49. Last seen in November 2016, they were reported missing by a friend when he hadn’t heard from them for a couple of months. While Ruth was born a Christian in Indonesia, Joshua was working as a pastor. Suhakam has still to hear the evidence of their disappearance.
“We are not giving up”
The enquiry took a break as Malaysia geared up for its 14th General Election, preparing to meet again a week after the May 9 vote, with police officers from the northern state of Kedah scheduled to take the stand.
But by the time the commissioners returned to the conference room of the Suhakam office, Malaysians had voted out the previous administration—for the first time since independence in 1957. Almost overnight, the fear of the past had been replaced with a new mood of optimism with talk of far-reaching institutional reforms, democratisation and freedom of expression.
“We need to support one another and press on to find the truth about what happened to our husbands”
To the delight of Koh’s family, the commissioners’ first move was to resume the enquiry into the pastor’s disappearance, saying the issues being addressed by the enquiry, and those under discussion in court, were different.
But there was more. Norhayati said she’d been visited at home by an informant on the night of May 12, who claimed police officers were involved in the disappearances of Amri and Koh. Three days later she made a statement on what she’d heard to police headquarters in Shah Alam, the capital of Selangor state.
“I urge the police to investigate these serious allegations with urgency, and to find my husband, Amri Che Mat, and also Pastor Raymond Koh and return them to their loved ones immediately,” she said.
After more than a year of uncertainty, this month’s developments have revived hopes that had been almost extinguished by January’s suspension. Koh may still be missing, but together with Norhayati, Liew believes they are inching closer to the truth.
“We need to support one another and press on to find the truth about what happened to our husbands,” she says. “Who has taken them? Where are they? All these unanswered questions in our minds. We are not giving up.”
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Kate Mayberry has lived and worked as a journalist in Southeast Asia for two decades. Now freelance, she was a member of the launch team for Al Jazeera English, and was previously a correspondent with Bloomberg.