Were Wang Kelian victims buried alive? Bodies too decomposed to tell, say forensic experts

R. Loheswar
(From left) Dr Mohamad Azaini Ibrahim, Datuk Dr Zahari Noor and Dr Mohd Suhani Mohd Noor attend the Wang Kelian Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) hearing in Putrajaya June 12, 2019. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

PUTRAJAYA, June 12 — The bodies of the victims buried in unmarked graves at Wang Kelian, Perlis three years ago had decomposed to such an extent that when discovered, forensic experts could not perform proper tests to determine their cause of death, let alone ascertain if they had been buried alive.

Three forensic experts who testified on Day 14 before a Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) all said they found it difficult to determine if there were elements of torture or if the victims were buried alive due to the lengthy wait between discovery and exhumation as well as the poor preservation of the remains after being dug out without proper medical supervision in 2015.

Dr Suhani Mohd Noor said the Medical Forensic Department at Hospital Sultanah Bahiyah in Alor Setar, Kedah where he was stationed was used as the disaster victim identification centre and was where all the post-mortems were conducted on the corpses recovered from the Wang Kelian mass graves.

According to Dr Suhani, who is the 39th person to testify in the RCI, the centre received 108 body bags which contained the remains of 119 victims.

Together with help from the Chemistry Department Malaysia, the centre in Alor Setar tried to run tests, including radiology, pathology and odontology (the scientific study of teeth structure and its diseases), to identify the human remains as well as the time and cause of death.

It was then that the forensic experts realised that most of the remains were too badly decomposed for any such tests to be performed.

The RCI panel chief Tun Ariffin Zakaria then asked if the victims were buried alive.

“Based on the studies conducted, it’ll be hard to determine that, but it’s most likely these victims were not buried alive,” Dr Suhani replied.

“We did not find any signs of torture as well, but bear in mind, all we found were bones. The soft tissue on the bodies had all deteriorated.

“We won’t exclude the possibility of there being elements of abuse or torture, it’s just that when we investigated the bodies, we couldn’t come up with a conclusive answer based on the evidence gathered.

“If say the victims were tortured and their bones were injured, it would still be hard to ascertain if those injuries came from being tortured or from something else,” he explained.

However, the three forensics experts who testified today were able to pinpoint the ethnicity of almost all the victims based on the remains.

Dr Mohamad Azaini Ibrahim, who testified after Dr Suhani, said the majority of the victims were of the Caucasoid race which are predominantly people from South Asia like Bangladesh, India or ethnic Rohingya. 

“By examining the skeletons and facial bone structure, we came to the conclusion that most of the victims were South Asians,” said the expert from Hospital Besar Serdang.

He explained that there are several human groupings who have several physical characteristics that set them apart from each other such as Negroids for those who hail from Africa and have a low-set nose that is flatter while their nasal aperture is rounder and bigger.

Malays and Chinese would be categorised as Mongoloids and Caucasoids have a higher nose placement, he said.

Dr Azaini, who said he examined eight bodies, was able to determine that all of them died from natural causes.

“One of my victims was found to have clogged arteries, which most likely caused him to die of arteriosclerosis,” he said.

“With bones, it’s hard to determine the race and it doesn’t help when you have to work fast and in a time crunch,” he added.

He too was asked by Arifin if any of the victims had been tortured.

“For the cases I examined, I can’t determine that as all the bodies I examined were decomposed. But based on the bones, no there wasn’t any element of torture,” the RCI’s the 40th witness said.

Dr Azaini along with Dr Suhani and today’s third and last forensic expert said their inspection of the remains took almost a week.

Datuk Dr Zahari Noor from Hospital Besar Pulau Pinang who testified last today agreed with the conclusions drawn by the other two forensic experts.

He added that if the bodies were found and exhumed in January 2015, a lot more detail and information, forensic investigators would have been able to uncover mire information about the victims and how they died.

“I feel if the post-mortems were done in January of 2015, we could do a better determination of the causes of death.

“Out of the eight bodies I inspected, one still had soft tissue and organs and we feel the body was buried maybe a week or more before it was found.

“After doing the necessary tests, we determined it was a male between 20 and 30 years old and had died of pneumonia,” Dr Zahari said.

He also said the other problem the laboratory team faced was the poor conditions in which the victims’ remains were preserved after being exhumed.

He said there should have been at least one forensic expert at the gravesite to supervise the exhumation process till the remains reached the hospital for the post-mortems.

“I believe when they exhumed the bodies, some were left sitting in the open at the top of the hill while the work carried on. When this happens, it speeds up the decomposition process because it’s exposed to the elements.

“And you don’t need animals to damage the body. All it needs is a swarm of flies to gather around it and if left unchecked, this will speed up the decomposition of the bodies and it will start to stink and rot.

“This is damage to crucial evidence we need to determine cause and time of death,” Dr Zahari said.

The RCI continues tomorrow.

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