On 13 February 2017 Pastor Raymond Koh was abducted in broad daylight. He was on his way to see a friend when he was kidnapped from his car by 15 men in three black SUVs and four other vehicles in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia. Video footage of the incident, as well as eyewitness reports, appears to indicate that the men were professionally trained.
The abduction incident is infamously known as ‘7-15-40’; seven vehicles, 15 professional men and the whole process took just 40 seconds.
In 2018, I met his wife and son in Kuala Lumpur. The two of them have consistently called for answers regarding the pastor’s whereabouts, but today, over four years since his abduction, these answers remain elusive.
A life in the crosshairs
Pastor Koh had been of interest to the Malaysian authorities for some time before his abduction. In 2004 he founded the Harapan Komuniti (Hope Community), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that provides social and charitable assistance to marginalised and underprivileged communities, including people living with HIV/AIDS, recovering drug addicts, and single mothers and their children.
In 2011, a dinner organised by the NGO was raided by 30 officers from the Selangor Islamic Religious Department after the organisers were accused of ‘proselytising Muslims.’ Although no one was prosecuted, Pastor Koh’s family received death threats in the aftermath, including one incident in which he received a box of bullets in the post.
Despite this, the pastor continued to bravely carry out his ministry work until his abduction in February 2017. His family have also reported being followed and monitored since his disappearance, as well as facing online hate speech and intimidation. Much like Pastor Koh’s own bravery, they too have remained unbowed by the pressure they are facing, with his wife vowing ‘relentless action’ until justice is served and answers are provided.
Pastor Koh’s family aren’t the only ones to have called for answers. In April 2019, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) identified the Special Branch of the Malaysian police as the state actors responsible for the pastor’s disappearance, as well as that of social activist Amri Che Mat in November 2016. The Commission called on the Malaysian authorities to respect the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), and to conduct detailed investigations into the disappearances.
In response to the findings, in June 2019 the government announced the formation of a task force to investigate Pastor Koh’s disappearance. However, since then there has been no update on the progress of the investigation, nor has any information been released thus far.
Concerns have also been raised at the international level. In November 2020 Commissioner Jimmy Carr of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) adopted the pastor under the Commission’s ‘Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project,’ saying: “The government of Malaysia must make good on its promise to conduct a transparent and thorough investigation of the circumstances of Pastor Koh’s abduction, and ensure his wellbeing and safe return home.”
Pastor Koh’s disappearance has parallels with those of several others in Malaysia, not least Amri Che Mat, whose case was raised alongside Pastor Koh’s by the Malaysian Human Rights Commission. Mr Che Mat is a Shi’a Muslim and the founder of another NGO, Perils Hope, which provides assistance to the poor, regardless of their religion.
Mr Che Mat, who was born Sunni Muslim before converting to Shi’a Islam, had also drawn the attention of the Malaysian authorities in the years prior to his abduction. Shi’ism is illegal in Malaysia, and the authorities are reported to have suspected Perils Hope to be a Shi’a organisation. He was abducted under strikingly similar circumstances to that of Pastor Koh’s abduction on 24 November 2016.
Also disappeared are Pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife Ruth Sitepu, who were last seen on 30 November 2016. Pastor Hilmy was born a Malay Muslim before converting to Christianity, and like Pastor Koh and Mr Mat had also experienced harassment and surveillance in the months prior to his disappearance. SUHAKAM is currently conducting an inquiry into the couple’s whereabouts.
Time to act
The silence on Pastor Koh’s whereabouts, and that of others like him, cannot continue. It is clear that he was targeted in relation to his religious beliefs and activism, and that Malaysian state actors are themselves implicated in his disappearance.
The pastor’s case, and those of others who have been ‘disappeared’ must be raised by states in bilateral and multilateral dialogues with the Malaysian government, calling for thorough, independent investigations and for those responsible to be held to account.
By CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas