Penan’s chief’s death still a mystery after body exhumed

April 10, 2008

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Police in Sarawak, Malaysia are not ruling out the possibility that anti-logging Penan leader Kelesau Naan, who was found dead in December, was murdered. Although there are indications that his death was sudden, and there are many unanswered questions about events before and after his death, the Marudi district police say there are ‘not enough bones’ to reach a conclusion on how he died.

Despite the inconclusive post-mortem, the police are currently treating Kelesau’s death as ‘natural’, although they are keeping the file open in case any further evidence comes to light and because of the widespread attention the case had attracted. The Penan want the police to investigate further as they believe the mysterious circumstances surrounding Kelesau’s death have not been fully examined.

A number of events, both before and after the headman’s disappearance in October, lead the Penan to believe that he was murdered. In the months before he disappeared, timber workers were found to be surveying the area, which is part of an ongoing legal dispute between the Penan, the Sarawak government and the logging company Samling. The Penan say that they were threatened with physical violence when they told the workers to leave. Kelesau Naan, together with another headman, wrote to Samling to protest at the incident.

Just before Kelesau went missing, his family allege that two Samling employees visited him and were heard to ask detailed questions about his movements.

It is also alleged that an individual known to be connected to Samling tried to persuade Nick Kelesau (Kelesau Naan’s son) to sign a statement saying that he did not suspect any foul play in his father’s death. Despite his refusing to sign, this letter subsequently emerged bearing a forged signature.

The police have twice announced they did not believe Kelesau was murdered, once before they had even been to his village to investigate, and again just before the results of the post mortem were released. The Penan believe that the police have failed to investigate the case properly. Survival is joining the Penan in their call for a full and thorough investigation into all the events surrounding the disappearance and death of Kelesau Naan.