The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) recently on April 15 released their finding report on the disappearance of Malaysian pastor Joshua Hilmy and his Indonesian wife Ruth Sitepu and classified it as likely the “case of enforced disappearance”.
The inquiry began on February 10, 2020, until January 22 this year, with 26 witnesses called to testify.
Both Joshua and Ruth were reported missing back in November 2016.
SUHAKAM had initiated investigations connected with the disappearances under Section 12(1) of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Act.
While there is no evidence that the state was involved in the enforced disappearance of Joshua Hilmy and Ruth Sitepu, SUHAKAM has concluded that the couple was abducted by a “person or persons unknown” and emphasized that there appear to be shortcomings from the police in their investigation and withholding related information.
For some here in Malaysia, the term enforced disappearance could be relatively new.
What is enforced disappearance? According to the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance proclaimed by the General Assembly in its resolution 47/133 of December 18, 1992 as a body of principles for all States, an enforced disappearance occurs when:
“Persons are arrested, detained or abducted against their will or otherwise deprived of their liberty by officials of different branches or levels of Government, or by organised groups or private individuals acting on behalf of, or with the support, direct or indirect, consent or acquiescence of the Government, followed by a refusal to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the persons concerned or a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of their liberty, which places such persons outside the protection of the law.”
In a more straightforward form, as the name suggests, enforced disappearance means the act of making someone disappear against their will.
This happens typically suddenly and refers to the act of a state as the perpetrator.
This series of mysterious disappearances indicates flawed human rights protection mechanisms in the county, for instance, the accountability of the police force.
Enforced disappearance has a profound effect on the families of the missing victims. Citizen Action Group on Enforced Disappearance (CAGED) is a group formed by Malaysian activists at the beginning of May 2017 to monitor enforced disappearances and assist families of missing victims.
Some of us recalled the other two cases during the same period when Joshua Hilmy and Ruth Sitepu went missing in November 2016.
During that same period, Pastor Raymond Koh and social activist Amri Che Mat went missing in February 2017 and November 2016, respectively.
SUHAKAM, in April 2019, concluded in their inquiries that both were victims of “enforced disappearance by state agents”.
During the announcement of the findings of the public inquiry in April 2020, SUHAKAM had said that there was “direct and circumstantial evidence which proves, on a balance of probabilities, that he was abducted by state agents, by Special Branch, Bukit Aman”.
This was a shocking conclusion. There are some prominent cases of enforced disappearance in Southeast Asia, such as Laos, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. When the missing cases of these four figures were made to the news, it sent a chilling sign to many.
Two months after the SUHAKAM’s finding on Koh and Amri, the home ministry formed a special task force to reinvestigate their disappearances.
Still, the task force’s report has been classified under the Official Secret Act (OSA). The government claimed that disclosing the findings would be against national interests.
This series of mysterious disappearances indicates a disturbing trend.
Each case is disturbing on its own, but together they point to some of the on-going debates on the human rights protection mechanisms in Malaysia, for instance, the accountability of the police force.
SUHAKAM’s report on Joshua Hilmy and Ruth Sitepu emphasized that there appear to be shortcomings from the police in their investigation and withholding of related information.
Linking to that, moving this forward, there is a need to continue the long-overdue police accountability mechanism that is truly independent and capable of ensuring adequate police oversight.
The recently proposed Independent Police Conduct Commission (IPCC) bill suffers from significant flaws.
It is time for the government to act timely and urgently in bringing back the original Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission Bill 2005.
Four individuals: Pastor Raymond Koh, Amri Che Mat, Joshua Hilmy and Ruth Sitepu, all with ties to religion, reported missing within four months. This should not be taken lightly. Instead, it deserves the full attention of our government.
(Khoo Ying Hooi is Universiti Malaya Senior Lecturer.)