Trial by execution? A Sarawak tale

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CASE CLOSED: Six unsolved murders and an attempted murder

In the early hours of Feb. 21 2016 Sarawak police shot dead two brothers, Joshua Beti Chong (44) and Awie Ningan (36) in Sibu district.

Later, that same morning, the Sarawak police chief held a press conference and branded the dead brothers as hired killers. 1 As a result, all local news portals reported that police had shot dead two "hired killers" (or "hired assassins", "hired gunmen") - even though neither had ever been charged with killing or causing hurt, and the younger brother had no criminal record at all. The word "alleged" seemed to have suddenly disappeared from the local media's vocabulary.

The brothers were in a white-coloured four-wheel drive (Nissan Navara) "which was driven in a suspicious manner" according to the police. Police said that when they tried to stop the four-wheel drive for inspection it fled, and a chase ended with the four-wheel drive crashing into the roadside. Police allege that "a shot was fired at the police" and "police retaliated and fired five to six shots, which killed the duo instantly".

Police said they were on the lookout for a white-coloured four-wheel drive following a shooting in Sibu on Jan. 9 2016 where a 30-year-old man was killed and his female friend was injured, with witnesses saying shooters fled in a white-coloured four-wheel drive. Other than "a white-coloured four-wheel drive", police provided nothing else linking the brothers with a murder investigation, and gave no justification at all for branding the brothers as "hired killers".

But the unsupported allegations did not stop there. At the press conference, the Sarawak police chief went on to claim that the dead brothers were involved in six murders and one attempted murder (dating from Jan. 2012 to Jan. 2016) and so, with the killing of the two brothers, seven cases were instantly solved.

In short: police attempted to stop the white-coloured four-wheel drive to further investigate a single case (Jan 9 shooting), killed the occupants, then immediately declared six other cases solved - without saying what new evidence was discovered to support that claim. But when a trial is conducted by first executing the defendants, what need is there for evidence?

While the claim may have seemed, to even a minimally attentive reader, completely absurd and called into question the credibility of police in Sarawak, later that same day the Inspector-General of Police (the top-ranking police officer of the Royal Malaysian Police, aka PDRM, who reports directly to the Minister of Home Affairs) showed that the question of police credibility was not just limited to Sarawak, when he said in his official Twitter page: 2 "Well done Sarawak @PDRMsia in an exchange of fire in Sibu, shot dead two hired killers, solving seven murder cases/attempted murders. #GoPDRMGo"

Done. The police declared it. The press dutifully reported it, without questioning. Case closed.

Well...almost...

Oops...

A week later, the family of the brothers held their own press conference, responding: 3 “The two brothers have died. The police must ensure justice and behold the truth when they branded them as hired killers in six murders and an attempted murder. Our family members are doubtful because of the seven cases, Joshua was serving his sentence in Sibu Prison in three cases.”

Oops...

Of the seven "solved" cases, one was in Nov. 2012 in Sibu, one was in Aug. 2013 in the state of Sabah, and the attempted murder was in Sep. 2014 in Sibu. The family pointed out that Joshua Beti Chong was arrested in Sep. 2012 and remained in detention until he was convicted in Aug. 2013, when he started serving his jail sentence until May 2015. So he was in detention or jail continuously from Sep. 2012 to May 2015, making it impossible for him to have any involvement in those three cases.

The family went on to point out: “Of the three [cases], it is most absurd Joshua could be in Sabah to kill while in Sibu Prison. There was no record of a jail break.” If the press did the minimum of fact-checking the police claims that they parroted, it was easy to find that those claims were invalidated by their own reports of Joshua's arrest and remand, 4 as well as his conviction and sentencing. 5

No response was offered by police. And the only followup found in the news was a report of how police took the unusal step of sealing off the entire mortuary for the post-mortem of Joshua Beti Chong, keeping family members out of the building. 6

Solved, or proof by execution?

Timeline: The 7 "solved" cases

Date Location Event
Jan 11, 2012 Sibu Case 1: Fatal shooting
Jul 12, 2012 Kuching Case 2: Fatal shooting
Sep 7, 2012 Kuching Joshua Beti Chong arrested and remanded
Sep 21, 2012 Kuching Joshua Beti Chong charged in court and denied bail
Nov 3, 2012 Sibu Case 3: Fatal shooting
Aug 3, 2013 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah Case 4: Fatal shooting
Aug 14, 2013 Kuching Joshua Beti Chong convicted and imprisoned
Sep 18, 2014 Sibu Case 5: Non-fatal shooting
May 7, 2015 Sibu Joshua Beti Chong released from prison
Jul 3, 2015 Bintulu Case 6: Fatal shooting
Jan 9, 2016 Sibu Case 7: Fatal shooting
Feb 21, 2016 Sibu Joshua Beti Chong and Awie Ningan killed by police

In theory, any accusation of criminality by police must be supported by evidence. In practice, however, that requirement is typically overlooked when the accusation is made against a person with a criminal record, who is deemed guilty until proven innocent.

Police offered no support to their claim that Awie Ningan was a hired assasin. But since he had no criminal record, the burden of proof lies squarely with the police - both in theory and practice. When police kill a person with no criminal record, then brand that person as a criminal, then no one is safe from false accusations by the police, no one is safe from police guns when a fall guy is needed.

Regardless of unfounded claims, Awie Ningan is innocent until proven guilty - alive or dead. Consequently, nothing more needs to be said about his case.

Unresolved issues in the 7 "solved" cases

The highlighted area indicates the period Joshua Beti Chong was incarcerated

Event Unresolved Issues
Case 1: Fatal shooting
  1. Eye witnesses said there were three men in the car the fatal shot was fired from, 7 yet police claim this case is solved by the killing of the two brothers - without accounting for the discrepancy in numbers.
  2. On Sep. 7, nearly eight months after this, Joshua was arrested on a weapons charge. He certainly would have been investigated for this unsolved crime at that time, but he was never charged for this shooting - which implies there was insufficient evidence. Yet police claim this case is solved by the killing of the two brothers - without saying what new evidence supports that claim.
Case 2: Fatal shooting According to one news report, 8 Joshua's Sep 7 arrest, together with another person (not his brother Awie Ningan), were for this shooting. But the two were charged and convicted for weapon possession - which implies that there was insufficient evidence to connect him with the shooting. Yet police claim this case is solved by the killing of the two brothers - without saying what new evidence supports that claim.
Case 3: Fatal shooting
  1. Joshua Beti Chong still in jail awaiting trial.
  2. Also, police confirmed that there were four men in the car the shooter emerged from, 9 10 yet police claim this case is solved by the killing of the two brothers - without accounting for the discrepancy in numbers.
Case 4: Fatal shooting Joshua Beti Chong still in jail awaiting trial
Case 5: Non-fatal shooting
  1. Joshua Beti Chong already in prison, serving sentence
  2. Also, it was reported that there were three men in the car that the shot was fired from, 11 yet police claim this case is solved by the killing of the two brothers - without accounting for the discrepancy in numbers.
Case 6: Fatal shooting This case certainly cries out for justification for the claim that it is solved, as news reports of the shooting are scarce, and details on the shooter even scarcer. 12
Case 7: Fatal shooting
  1. After the shooting, police said the gunman drove a Toyota Hilux and identified the owner, 13 as CCTV footage of the vehicle had been obtained. 14 But at the police press conference held after the police killed the two brothers, the gunman's vehicle suddenly became a Nissan Navara - the model of car the brothers were killed in - with police saying they were looking for the owner of the Nissan, again no explanation of the discrepancy.
  2. At the police press conference, police said that after the shootout a gunshot mark was found on the Nissan, that was believed to have been caused by a bodyguard after the shooting. Two days later it was reported that a police forensic team from Kuching was called in to check the vehicle for clues and evidence. 15 Yet there have been no reports on forensics findings. Would police remain mum if evidence were found to support their claims of solved murders?
  3. Also, it was reported that there were three people in the vehicle that the the shooter emerged from, 16 17 yet police claim this case is solved by the killing of the two brothers - without accounting for the discrepancy in numbers.

Other than the claim that Joshua Beti Chong was responsible for shootings committed on the streets while he was incarcerated, any one of these unresolved issues might be deemed minor - possibly due to witness inaccuracies or unreported updates. But taken together, and taken along with police refusal to respond to the family's request for proof, the totality strongly suggests that the police claim that these shooting cases are solved was (at best) premature, or was (at worst) a lie designed to hide incompetence and/or corruption.

In addition, in the face of such questions of police veracity, it also must be asked: should the claim that Joshua Beti Chong and Awie Ningan were killed by police in a shootout be accepted as fact without proof? Is human life of such little value in Malaysia that it can be taken away by the government at any time - no questions asked?

The police story was the standard one - a chase followed by a shootout initiated by those killed - that has long been suspect. When the Minister of Home Affairs, who oversees the police, admitted the police "shoot first" policy in 2013, 18 it confirmed suspicions:

I think the best way is that we no longer compromise with them. There is no need to give them any more warning. If (we) get the evidence, (we) shoot first.
In this case, it can be seen how police respond when they don't get the evidence.

Everything Is Under Control

Any time leaders recognize that the public has become aware of the leaders' inability to maintain public order (or unwillingness to maintain the type of order that the public expects), the leaders can be expected to initiate a campaign of public reassurance. So messages of "Don't worry, we've got everything under control" from Sarawak police leaders came as no surprise.

But the messages from Sarawak police leaders creatively diverged from standard scripts by adding a new twist that was unique to the local environment: "Don't worry, the gunmen have everything under control".

After the initiation of a police task force in 2012 (after Case 2) to investigate the wave of shootings in Sarawak, the State Police Commissioner told the press: 19 “The public should not have any worries because the gunmen we can see did not shoot at random at people on the streets. These people were very specific, very focused, they knew their targets”

Leaders normally ask the public to trust the police to do their job professionally and keep the public safe, yet here was a leader asking the public to trust the criminals to do their job professionally and keep the public safe.

The logical question to ask is: what is the basis of his confidence in these gunmen? Since he publicly vouched for the work habits of the murderers, does that mean he knows who they are, and their training and experience?

This was not an isolated case. In 2016 (after Case 7) when a Sibu deputy district police chief was told that the multiple recent shootings made the public fear that Sibu was not safe, the deputy chief's response was merely a rephrasing of the Police Commissioner's 2012 message that the public should not fear for their safety: 20 “These cases do not involve rampant shootings in the town but involved groups of people who have grudges with their rivals. They did not involved the general public as they did not shoot innocent people. So please go out and tell the people that Sibu is a relatively nice place...”

But while these leaders were glamorizing the killers as Hollywood-style terminators that murder with stealth and precision, this was pure fantasy. The reality was quite a bit messier.

Firstly, all of these seven shootings were done with shotguns blasting pellets indiscriminately in every direction - pellets that never "knew their targets". It is difficult to imagine how shooters with such a weapon, designed to take down anything within its 45 meter range (and Case 4 was the only close range shooting), can be described as "very specific, very focused".

Secondly, all of these shootings except Case 1 were at coffee shops (a generic term used in Malaysia for a type of open-air or semiopen-air eatery), and three of those coffee shop shootings were during lunch hours (11AM-1:30PM) when the shops are busiest. Case 1 was on a major public street at 10:15AM. Thus, all the shootings were done at maximum risk to the safety of the general public, and most were in broad daylight.

As a result, the claim that "they did not shoot innocent people" is completely false:

Case 2: Fatal shooting
Innocent bystander (customer nearby) injured by pellets
Case 3: Fatal shooting
Two persons related to fatal victim injured by pellets
Case 6: Fatal shooting
Innocent bystander (shop owner) injured by pellets
Case 7: Fatal shooting
Fatal victim’s friend seriously wounded by pellets, hospitalized nine days

There was also property damage. The coffee shops, along with nearby shops and parked vehicles, were all damaged by pellets. Glass on a fridge door shattered, perforated curtains, and other gunmarks were some of the nuisances shop owners had to deal with. In addition, photos show large amounts of blood spilled on coffee shop tables and floors.

And, of course, the many lunchtime customers were left shocked by the bloody violence witnessed.

In Case 5 and Case 7, the trauma was compounded (and public risk increased) as bodyguards shot at shooters' vehicles. In Case 7 the bodyguard was arrested, with police saying they were concerned: "because there were many people taking supper at the few coffee shops in the vicinity and the road used by the speeding vehicle was heavily congested."

Aftermath

Thanks to the police, the real shooters in the three cases falsely attributed to Joshua Beti Chong (and possibly the other four) go free, while dead men take the rap. Case closed.

After Feb. 21, following the killing of those whom police claimed to be responsible for almost all the gangland-style shootings in East Malaysia, it would not be unreasonable to expect the shootings to immediately end. But that did not happen:

7:30AM Apr. 15, 2016: Kota Kinabalu Sabah drive-by shooting

Two men originally from Sibu were shot dead in Kota Kinabalu Sabah (about 5km from the site of Case 4) when two assailants on a motorcycle drove alongside the four-wheel drive the victims were travelling in, then fired eight shots through the driver’s window, killing the driver and passenger. The uncontrolled four-wheel drive then rammed into the rear of another car. That driver, though shocked by the gunshots, was reported unharmed in the incident. 21

The driver of the four-wheel drive, Hii Lam King, had previously escaped unharmed from another drive-by shooting in West Malaysia in June 2015 22 - also executed by two assailants on a motorcycle firing eight shots into the car he was driving. His passenger, however, was seriously wounded. Five men were charged for that shooting - Lau Ngik Yin of Sibu, his bodyguard, a policeman, and two former narcotics policemen - but all were acquitted when the judge ruled that the prosecution failed to prove the charges against them. 23

Noon Oct. 05, 2016: Sibu coffee shop shooting

Lau Ngik Yin, who was accused and acquitted of conspiring to shoot Hii Lam King in the June 2015 drive-by shooting, was shot dead in a coffee shop around noon by a man said to have casually approached their table before firing four shots at the victims, then fleeing on a motorcycle parked nearby. Lau's associate was also killed.

Media reports claim Lau was actually the target in Case 3. Lau escaped death, but his wife died from shotgun pellets in the head. Lau was also the victim in Case 5. Both of these were shootings that police blamed on Joshua Beti Chong, even though he was incarcerated at the time of the shootings. 24

In short: less than eight months after police killed Joshua Beti Chong and his brother, then falsely declared them to be the hired assassins in two attempts on Lau's life, and declared those cases solved even though no one was identified as the person who hired the assassins, Lau ends up murdered - possibly by the same parties that the police chose to ignore in the previous attempts.

While police shouted of hired assassins, there was no talk of hunting down the boss who hired them until after those alleged to be the assassins could not assist the investigation because they were already dead.

The Bottom Line

Q: Other than the two dead brothers, how many people have the police been able to charge (or execute) for the seven cases, for the two shootings after the brothers' death, and for the July 2012 Miri shooting? 25

A: ZERO - no shooters, no "masterminds", no accomplices.

In reality, these are ten very serious unsolved crimes - and, for seven of them, police have publicly declared they have no intention of investigating to find the shooters.

Thus in a public that was already shocked by seeing streets become an open shooting gallery, there was a further erosion of trust in police credibility and integrity as a result of persistent denial of the danger, followed by a claim that cases were solved while providing no support for that claim other than two more dead bodies. The result of that claim was implicit police protection (intentional or not) for the shooters and the criminal interests they represent - a truly frightening response to brazen acts that endangered the public.

Is it any wonder that the local press remains totally silent and compliant as the police use the press to deliver fake news? What recourse is there? File a police report?

Sources

  1. 2016/02/21: Hired assassins gunned down after hot pursuit
  2. 2016/02/21: Two hired killers shot dead by Sibu police (Updated)
  3. 2016/02/29: Cops urged to show proof 2 brothers were hired assassins
  4. 2012/09/22: Two claim trial to possessing firearms
  5. 2013/08/15: Jail, rotan for man possessing revolver and his co-accused
  6. 2016/03/06: Family of slain man shut out of mortuary during post mortem ‘puzzling’
  7. 2012/01/12: Daring gun attack on businessman
  8. 2012/09/22: Green Heights shooting case duo charged
  9. 2012/11/04: Another daylight shooting>
  10. 2012/11/06: Police have new leads on Saturday’s shooting incident
  11. 2014/09/19: Yet another shooting incident in Sibu
  12. 2015/07/05: Businessman shot while drinking with friends
  13. 2016/01/10: One dead, another seriously injured in Sibu shooting
  14. 2016/01/10: Businessman shot to death, girlfriend injured after supper in Sibu
  15. 2016/02/23: "Police forensic checks hired killers’ vehicle", originally at http://www.newsarawaktribune.com.my/news/54424/police-forensic-checks-hired-killers-vehicle, can be viewed here.
  16. 2016/01/10: Businessman shot to death, girlfriend injured after supper in Sibu
  17. 2016/01/20: New twist to probe as Ting’s bodyguard arrested
  18. 2013/10/07: With criminals, we shoot first, admits home minister
  19. 2012/08/01: Task force on street shooting
  20. 2016/03/12: Fighting crime the ‘bright’ way
  21. 2016/04/15: Two men shot dead in Kota Kinabalu
  22. 2016/04/16: Gunned down in third attempt
  23. 2016/07/22: Court frees five on conspiracy to commit murder
  24. 2017/10/06: Gunned down by lone assassin
  25. 2012/07/31: Miri businessman shot dead