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Jakarta Post

A plea, hope as search for missing sister stalls

  • Devina Heriyanto and Dian Septiari

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Mon, April 1, 2019   /   06:02 pm
A plea, hope as search for missing sister stalls Iman Setiawan Sitepu shows a picture of his elder sister Ruth Sitepu at The Jakarta Post's office in Jakarta, on Monday, March 25, 2019. (JP/Evi Mariani)

Rudangta “Ruth” Sitepu’s family has been living in constant fear for her safety after they lost contact with her and her husband in 2016.

That fear turned to dread when one of her friends said they might be the victims of a forced disappearance.

A North Sumatra native, Ruth had lived in Malaysia since 2000, where she worked as a seamstress. There, she met Pastor Joshua Hilmy in 2004 and married him the same year on July 11.

Ruth’s youngest brother, Iman Setiawan Sitepu, said the last time they had been in contact with her was in November 2016, after which she stopped responding to Facebook messages and phone calls.

In an open letter to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Iman made an emotional plea, calling on the government to ask Malaysia for assistance to find his missing sister, stating that she had become “a victim of discriminatory actions” there.

“A good friend of our sister contacted us in Sumatra and told us that our sister had been reported missing because of things related to religious,” he said in the letter.

On March 6, 2017, Ruth and Joshua’s landlord filed a missing persons report, according to a chronology of the case made available to The Jakarta Post. More than a week later, the police claimed that there were no leads. The case remains unsolved.

Iman insisted his older sister would never break the law.

He filed a report with the Foreign Ministry’s citizen protection department last April but said he did not get a favorable response.

Ruth had been a Christian since birth. The couple, considered good Samaritans in their community, lived in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, and “opened their house” to anyone in need, as family friend Lay Hua puts it. “They are not a threat,” Hua told Post on Monday, March 25.

In March 2006, at their traditional wedding in Langkat regency, North Sumatra, Joshua revealed to the family that he used to be a Muslim but had converted to Christianity — something which is punishable under Malaysian law.

Conversion, particularly from Islam to Christianity, is a serious bureaucratic hassle in Malaysia, if not outright forbidden. One must get approval from a shariah court if one wishes to leave Islam, according to a 2018 ruling by Malaysia’s Federal Court.

Last June, the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) heard about the case and contacted the family. In October, Kontras and two lawyers went to Langkat to meet the Sitepu family.

The ministry told Kontras last week that the case, along with two others, was still being investigated by the Malaysian police and the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam).

Ruth and Joshua’s disappearance mirrors those of Christian pastor Raymond Koh and Shiite activist Amri Che Mat.

Koh’s disappearance on Feb. 13, 2007, made headlines in Malaysia after his alleged abduction was caught on CCTV in Petaling Jaya.

Malaysian newspaper The Star said Koh was a well-known pastor who kept himself busy with social initiatives, while Amri was the cofounder of the NGO Perlis Hope.

Malaysian lawyer Michelle Wong, who has been monitoring the case, argued that the same thing might have happened to Ruth and Joshua. “This is based on the police’s own statement that all four cases have the same modus operandi.”

With Kontras and the law firm in tow, the family has renewed their efforts to find Ruth.

On Tuesday, they met with Amiruddin Al Rahab, a commissioner at the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), as well as representatives of the Law and Human Rights Ministry.

This article was originally published in The Jakarta Post's print edition on March 27, 2019, with the title "A plea, hope as search for missing sister stalls".