Report finds gaps in 2015 probe of mass graves in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — A report released Wednesday found gaps in the investigation and possible obstruction of justice in Malaysia's 2015 discovery of mass graves believed to be of Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis held in trafficking camps in a hilly jungle area on its border with Thailand.

The report, jointly prepared by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia and Fortify Rights, comes after Malaysia's new government formed a royal commission of inquiry in February into the tragedy at Wang Kelian in northern Perlis state that shocked the nation.

"There's fresh political will in Malaysia to right these wrongs and ensure justice and accountability for Rohingya and all victims of these heinous crimes," said Jerald Joseph, a commissioner with the Human Rights Commission.

He said the report, titled "Sold Like Fish" and based on more than 270 interviews with witnesses, survivors, human traffickers, government officials and others, provides new evidence that may help uncover the truth and initiate policy changes to battle human trafficking.

Malaysian police in late May 2015 announced the discovery of a cluster of abandoned jungle camps used by human traffickers in Wang Kelian and later exhumed 139 bodies from mass graves there. The findings followed a similar discovery earlier the same month by Thai police, who unearthed 36 bodies from shallow graves on the Thai side of the border.

The discoveries exposed hidden networks of jungle camps run by human smugglers, who for years held desperate people captive while extorting ransoms from their families. Most of those who fell victim to the trafficking networks were members of Myanmar's persecuted Rohingya minority or impoverished migrants from Bangladesh, part of a wave of people who fled their homelands in search of better lives.

The report Wednesday, however, said Malaysian authorities were aware of the human trafficking camps more than four months before they were announced publicly. Authorities raided one of the sites where trafficking victims were held in cages on Jan. 19, 2015, but destroyed it a day later, diminishing evidence that could have aided in the investigation, it said.

Authorities also exhumed bodies from the mass graves in May without explaining the delay, which hampered forensic efforts to determine their cause of death.

"These and other factors may constitute obstruction of justice," the report said.

It cited an unidentified forensic doctor as saying there were 152 remains at the hospital, more than the police figure of 139 bodies. It said the forensic team found the cause of death for three victims, but couldn't determine the others because the bodies had decomposed severely.

The report said 750 foreigners had been arrested for illegal entry into Wang Kelian in 2013 and 2014 and were investigated for immigration offenses. Had authorities treated them as human trafficking cases, they could have detected suspicious activities and discovered the camps earlier, it said.

Similarly, it said 38 foreigners detained during the raid on the camp in January 2015 were charged with immigration offenses, instead of being protected under anti-trafficking laws.

Malaysia has convicted four foreigners of trafficking-related offenses in connection with the Wang Kelian tragedy, while Thailand convicted 62 people, including nine Thai officials, of trafficking crimes.

"Previous efforts to uncover the truth only scratched the surface," said Matthew Smith, CEO of Fortify Rights. He hailed the formation of the royal commission of inquiry as a step in the right direction to determine the extent of responsibility and involvement of Malaysian authorities in the trafficking of migrants.

The report urged the royal commission to establish the facts about the human trafficking, deaths, mass graves and the government response, and to identify those responsible and ensure reparations for the survivors.

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