Unexplained abductions in Malaysia raise concerns | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 23.05.2017
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Unexplained abductions in Malaysia raise concerns

Scant updates from the police and silence from the politicians on the disappearances of four Malaysian pastors and community workers have prompted human rights groups to ask if these are "enforced disappearances."

Despite holding regular candle light vigils, Malaysians remain very much in the dark over the fate of four of their countrymen who have gone missing or have been abducted over the past seven months.  

Social activist Amri Che Mat disappeared last November in the northern state of Perlis. Eyewitness accounts claim he was snatched from his car at night and taken away by his abductors. His car was later found near a dam with its windscreen smashed.

Joshua Hilmy, an ethnic Malay pastor and former Muslim, and his wife Ruth were last seen in November near the capital Kuala Lumpur before they vanished.

Mirroring Amri's abduction, 15 masked men in black SUVs boxed in Pastor Raymond Koh's car in February this year, and kidnapped him in broad daylight.

CCTV footage of the abduction, which took less than a minute, was later described by Koh's son to the BBC as "very professionally executed." Despite the RM 100, 000 (about $23,000) reward offered by his family for information on his whereabouts, there has been no trace of neither Koh nor his car ever since.

'Specter of enforced disappearances'

Frustrated by scant information from the police and the government's silence on what has been described as "unprecedented mysterious disappearances of Malaysians," citizens and civil society groups have been holding regular candle light vigils to press the authorities to be more forthcoming with the details of their investigations.

Just today, the Malaysian press reported Koh's wife, Susanna Liew, as saying that she cannot rule out the possibility that "people in power" are linked to her husband's disappearance. She also believes they know more about her husband's disappearance than they are admitting to in public. "No, I cannot rule that out. Based on the way the authorities have behaved in the last 100 days, this is a possibility," said Liew.

In a press statement in April, the Malaysian Bar Council said, "It is shocking and outrageous that a growing number of Malaysians could inexplicably disappear and not be found for days, weeks and months. This has never happened before in this country, to the best of our knowledge, and has led to public perception and speculation of the occurrence of forced disappearances."

The term hasn't sat well with law enforcement though. Following a vigil held on April 8, the police have ordered three activists to appear before them on May 24 for linking the incidents to "enforced disappearances."

All three are part of the recently formed Citizen Action Group on Enforced Disappearance (CAGED). Spokesman Thomas Fann told online news portal The Malaysian Insight, "When we decided to call it enforced disappearance, we expected that the authorities would not take too kindly to that allegation."

As part of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Caged has also submitted a report on Koh's and Amri's disappearances to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID).

FIDH president Dimitris Christopoulos was quoted as saying, "It is extremely troubling that the specter of enforced disappearance has reared its ugly head in Malaysia."

Targets of religious vigilantism?

Given the brazen nature of some of these abductions, theories have been swirling about "religious vigilantism" in the Muslim-majority Southeast Asian nation.

In Malaysia, it is an offence for non-Muslims to proselytize Muslims; although it is legal vice versa.

The police have said that their investigations indicate that Koh's abduction may have been connected to his attempt to spread Christianity in northern Malaysia. Koh had been accused of the same before in 2011, when the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jais) raided a fundraising dinner at a church and found Muslim attendees. Though the allegations were dropped later, Koh reportedly received two bullets via post thereafter, and remained a subject of such rumors.

Amri, who is a co-founder of Perlis Hope, a charity organization aiding the poor, has been accusedof spreading Shia Islamic teachings, an act which is banned in Sunni-majority Malaysia. His wife, however, has flatly denied this.

Finally, apostasy among Malay Muslims is generally considered a sin or a crime by local Islamic authorities, making it rare, and somewhat precarious, for ethnic Malays like Hilmy to openly embrace and practice other faiths besides Islam. But there is no conclusive evidence to link these incidents.

Keeping mum

Since Koh's abduction, Christians in Malaysia and abroad have been asking the government for clarity on the missing four to no avail.

The World Council of Churches has yet to receive a reply to its letter dated May 7 that was addressed directly to Prime Minister Najib Razak. Attempts by the Council of Churches of Malaysia to speak to National Unity and Integration Minister Joseph Kurup have only now borne fruit - 100 days after Koh's abduction. The minister will reportedly meet Koh's family soon "to hear their concerns."

Meanwhile, Fann has said that the monthly candle light vigils are set to continue both in the capital and in various states until the families "get closure."

"What we want to know is why hasn't there been any breakthrough in the cases? Could there be a vigilante group operating within our country that can boldly take Koh in broad daylight and are able to escape detection? The police should be concerned that such a group exists because it has been months and there is no progress," Fann was quoted as saying.

Sevan Doraisamy, executive director of the human rights NGO Suaram, has reportedly suggested that the police enlist expert help in their investigations. "If the police need more expertise then they should get it from other countries. If they are getting assistance, then where are the updates?"

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