Christian preachers' disappearance in Malaysia stokes fears of crackdown on religious minorities

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - The disappearance of three Christians and a man accused of spreading Shia Islam in Malaysia has prompted fears that authorities are targeting religious minorities with extrajudicial detention.

Video and witness evidence indicate that highly organised groups carried out abductions in public. Months after the men disappeared, family members have learned nothing about their whereabouts and human rights activists say police have taken an uncharacteristically “casual” approach to the cases.

“Do I think the state is linked to this? It is a difficult question to answer,” said Suzanna Liew, wife of pastor Raymond Koh, who went missing on 13 February. “But can I rule out the possibility that people in power are linked to this or know more than they are admitting? No, I cannot.”

Koh had been accused of attempting to convert Muslims – a crime in Malaysia – and had a received death threat. Less is known about the abduction of the Christian pastor Joshua Hilmy – a convert from Islam – and his wife Ruth, who were reported missing in March.

A fourth person also disappeared in a similar way. Amri Che Mat, abducted in November, according to witnesses, was accused of preaching Shia Islam, which is not recognised in officially Sunni Malaysia.

Thomas Fann, a human rights activist, founded Caged, the Citizen Action Group on Enforced Disappearance, in response to the cases.

“We say that there is a high probability there have been enforced disappearances, which means that the state may be directly or indirectly involved,” he said.“We have a reason to believe that there is a relationship because they are all faith-based workers.”

Fann and Sevan Doraisamay, executive director of the SUARAM human rights group, believe it is possible the group are victims of extra-judicial detention. The other possibility is that a professional criminal gang may have abducted them. If that were the case, it poses the question who could operate so effectively under the noses of Malaysia’s famously skilled security forces.

In an interview with the Guardian, Liew and Koh’s daughters Esther and Elizabeth Koh, described how they had lost trust in the police. They said officers had offered them no information and urged them not to speak to the media about case. The “last straw” was when they learned authorities were investigating Koh for preaching to Muslims.

On 24 May Malaysian police made the surprise announcement that a suspect had been arrested in the Koh case last week, without giving specific detail. The police also responded to allegations against them.

“Do not make such accusations without evidence,” said the inspector general of police, Khalid Abu Bakar, according to the Malaysia Insight. “If you have any, come forward and give it to us.

“We have to investigate. Not just the abduction but also the report that he was converting Muslims.”

In May police told the Guardian they were looking “high and low” for Koh, but investigators could not be reached for comment after the media report they claimed an arrest had been made.

Of the four disappearances, Raymond Koh’s case is the most famous, because CCTV footage of his kidnapping was posted online. The video, shows synchronised black SUVs surrounding Koh’s car on a highway and a group of men in black quickly taking himaway.

“Watching that video was really shocking,” Liew said. “They seem really well-funded, and really brave. Who would have the resources to pay for such an operation?”

After seeing in the media that police had announced an arrest, the family said it was unusual they had been kept in the dark, and that, at the time of publication, they had not been directly told anything.

Roughly 60% of Malaysians are Muslim and Islam is enshrined in the constitution as the official religion of the Malay people. Ethnic Chinese and Tamil-speaking minorities are free to practice other faiths, but religious police enforce rules for the Malay community. Some conservative groups have called for tougher measures against proselytising religious minorities.

“We have seen that the space for religious freedom has been shrinking over the last few years,” said Shamini Darshni Kaliemuthu, executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia.

But reports of persons simply going missing, for any reason, were unprecedented in recent Malaysian history. “This is a new phenomenon, which was previously unheard of. It’s very frightening.”

The United Nations human rights office for south-east Asia said it was “deeply concerning that little progress has been made” in the Koh and Che Mat cases.

Norhayati Ariffin, the wife of Che Mat, also complained about the police investigation, according to an interview published in Free Malaysia Today.

Koh’s family refuses to speculate on Raymond’s fate.

“We’re trying to be hopeful. Right now there is nothing,” said his daughter Elizabeth. “All we know is he was taken somewhere by a number of men and he disappeared into thin air.”