ON AUG. 3, 2011, Harapan held a thanksgiving dinner at a Methodist church, inviting about 180 people, including donors and recipients of Harapan’s services. Suddenly members of the state’s Islamic Religious Department and 20 police officers stormed in.
Susanna and several others took them outside. They noted it was a private event, and the officers didn’t have a warrant. The authorities said someone had filed a complaint about the gathering and wanted to know if any Malays were present. Officers took the names of 12 Malay attendees and instructed them to attend religious counseling sessions.
The church filed a police report about the raid, complaining the officials didn’t follow proper procedures. Two months later, the Sultan of Selangor, the highest religious official of the state, issued a decree saying officers should drop their investigation: The department did not find enough evidence to prove Christians were proselytizing Muslims at the meeting.
But Muslim bloggers continued to make accusations about Koh and Harapan. One wrote that Koh received money for every person he converted from Islam. Koh’s family noticed people following them when they went out and received threatening phone calls day and night. One morning Jonathan found a package with a message written in red ink: “I will kill you. You wait and see who is stronger—Islam or Christianity.” Inside the package were two bullets.
“It was terrible, it was so unsettling,” Susanna said. “We felt afraid and intimidated.” Even after the decree, every time the couple traveled out of the country, police would interrogate them when they returned to Malaysia, asking about Harapan as well as the kindergarten Susanna used to run. This continued for about a year.
But Koh continued his work. A year before his disappearance, Koh published a book to help Christians pray for Malaysia. It broke the country down into 52 different sections and included background about the region, testimonies, and prayer items.
ON FEB. 13, 2017, the masked men in black SUVs kidnapped Koh, and police began hampering the family’s search for justice. They claimed the surveillance cameras along the road didn’t work or didn’t pick up where the SUVs went. In June authorities announced they found photos of Koh, his car, and his residence in the home of a drug and arms smuggler they had killed in a shootout.
But during the Suhakam inquiry, which began in October, Koh family lawyer Jerald Gomez pointed out police hadn’t listed these items in the report of the raid and they were not exhibited with the rest of the evidence. Gomez argued the “photos were a red herring to divert attention from the police and pin it on a deceased person.” The panel concluded the items either never existed or police planted them.
Suhakam does not have the power to make criminal convictions, but it can make judgments on a “balance of probability” and advise the government in its next steps. Local human rights groups asked the commission to hold public inquiries to determine whether the abductions of Koh, Amri, Hilmy, and Sitepu were enforced disappearances.
Eyewitnesses indicated Amri’s November 2016 abduction was similar to Koh’s, including black SUVs that boxed in his car. Religious authorities had targeted Amri in the past because of his Shiite faith, which the majority Sunni population considered apostasy. They claimed his organization, Perlis Hope, was a front for spreading Shiism.
A major break in the cases came in May 2018, when a sergeant from the Special Branch visited Amri’s wife and told her that the Special Branch had abducted her husband. He also said the same gold Toyota Vios took part in both Amri’s and Koh’s abductions. An eyewitness jotted down its license plate: PFC 1623.
During the inquiry, police claimed they couldn’t reveal the car’s owner because law made it confidential. But lawyers found the owner worked as an administrative assistant at the police training center and had worked with the Royal Malaysia Police for the past 18 years. When Suhakam asked the police about this man, they claimed he had resigned and they could not find him. The whistleblower sergeant also denied ever meeting with Amri’s wife.
On April 9, 2019, Suhakam finally released its judgment: The Special Branch of the Royal Malaysia Police was responsible for both Amri’s and Koh’s abductions. The panel also noted the police did not thoroughly investigate the disappearances.
Susanna and other advocates were surprised to see the commission courageously call out the powerful police force. The panel also recommended setting up an “Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission” (IPCMC) and a Special Task Force to reopen and reinvestigate Amri’s and Koh’s disappearances. It also called for a clear separation between the police and the religious authorities.
Many hoped that after the opposition Alliance of Hope coalition won elections in 2018—beating the National Front coalition, which has ruled the country since independence—the new government, led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, would investigate properly and charge the perpetrators. But advocates face more of the same.
The government did set up the Special Task Force, but advocates argue several of its members have conflicts of interest and will likely protect their own. While the Task Force promised to update the Koh family on its progress, Susanna said it hasn’t once notified her and has delayed its final ruling, which was supposed to be in December. Since then, Koh has sued the former inspecors general of the police. The drafted IPCMC bill turned out to be “toothless and limbless,” with less investigative power than the previous system, said Citizens Against Enforced Disappearances spokesman Rama Ramanathan.