Sunday, September 13, 2009

Kamunting: Detention Without Trial

Some have said it is where they experienced the darkest moments of their lives, others, that it encouraged contemplation. What is life like in the country’s most well-known prison?


FOR almost four decades, the place has struck fear in those facing the Internal Security Act: if you were sent to Kamunting, it could mean years of detention without trial.

Originally intended for imprisoning communist terrorists, in recent times, Kamunting Detention Centre has become a rather romanticised prison of conscience, thanks to the detention of political figures like Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, Lim Kit Siang, Karpal Singh, Dr Syed Husin Ali, Dr Jeffrey Kitingan, Dr Nasir Hashim, Tian Chua, Ezam Mohd Nor, Datuk Zahid Hamidi and, more recently, the Hindraf (Hindu Rights Action Force) leaders and uber blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin.

The stories told by released detainees have reinforced Kamunting’s reputation as a kind of Alcatraz, Devil’s Island or Guantanamo in our own backyard. Stung by the negative public perception, and at the request of senior editors during a meeting between the Home Ministry’s secretary-general, Datuk Seri Mahmood Adam, and the media, a visit was arranged late last month.

Grim view: The Kamunting Detention Centre’s 230ha are surrounded by double fences topped with barbed wire. – Photos by SHAHANAAZ HABIB / The Star

Led by the ministry’s head of corporate communications, Jamilah Taib, a busload of print journalists make the almost four-hour trip from Putrajaya to Taiping, Perak.

There is a sense of guarded anticipation. We realise we are lucky because such a first-hand look is so rare. Yet, we are aware that it will be a carefully managed visit. Right from the start, we are warned that no cameras and mobile phones would be allowed.

We stop in front of Kamunting’s gates, which are flanked by 6m-high double fences topped with barbed wire. Beyond lies 230ha of prison land containing 299 inmates.

Of the lot, only 12, all men, are ISA detainees. (Six of them are Malaysian.) The rest of the prisoners are serving time for other crimes.

Eight of the ISA detainees, including Singapore terrorist Mas Selamat Kastari, are members of the radical militant Jemaah Islamiah (JI) group. The remaining four are being held for forging documents like passports.

The foreigners, who are from Thailand, Pakistan and Bangladesh, are being held under the Emergency (Public Order and Prevention of Crime, or POPOC) Ordinance, 1969.

Since 1973, when the prison was built, it has held 2,706 ISA detainees. The highest number – 1,642 communist terrorists – was recorded between 1973 and 1989.

We can enter this gate only after all the body and bag searches have been done.

Guarded visits

On hand to greet us are several senior ministry and prison department officers, including Prison commissioner-general Datuk Zulfikli Omar, Prison (Management) commissioner Hassan Sakimon, Prison Affairs director Haji Abd Wahab Haji Kassim, Prison deputy commissioner (Security) Thang Ah Yong and Kamunting Detention Centre commandant Ramli Osman.

Once we step through the first gate into Kamunting and sign in, we have to leave our cameras, mobile phones and even our wallets in lockers. Then, as expected in high security areas like these, we have to go through a bag check and body search before we are allowed through the second gate.

Our first stop is the visitors’ area where detainees meet their families for their once-a-week visits. (For some reason, the place is painted pink; even the tiled stone benches are pink!)

Commandant Ramli explains that detainees are allowed to meet with family members (a maximum of five people per visit) for 45 minutes once a week, or a bit longer if there is a special reason. Most of the visits are on weekends. Friends are allowed (as one of the five) if a family member brings them in.

Those coming from, say, Sabah or Sarawak, or who are unable to make weekly visits, are allowed extra time with their detained family member.

There are two types of meetings. For new detainees, family visits take place in an area where they are separated by a glass partition, and communication is via an intercom. Those who have cleared two months of detention are allowed to meet without any barrier and can even touch each other.

As expected, guards are present throughout both types of visits, watching and listening. This means there is little privacy for the detainee (his incoming and outgoing mail, too, is read) but the authorities say this is necessary for security reasons.

Ramli says the camp authorities make sure that detainees know and get their rights.

“They can see their family members once a week, they are allowed to meet with their lawyer, they can appeal against their detention, they can file complaints, they can write and receive a letter once a week, they have the right to seek medical treatment, and they are allowed a phone call to their family weekly,” he says.

As we make our way into the separate ISA detention area, we are shown the clinic and introduced to the doctors who work full-time there. One of them, Dr Michael Wong, was formerly an army doctor who left private practice to take up the post in May last year.

Since photography is not allowed inside the prison, we persuaded former ISA detainee Tian Chua to share the sketches he made while he was at Kamunting: These are his possessions in the dorm.

Surreal juxtaposition

As for the detention camp area, to get inside, we have to get past another two of those massive gates with more of that 6m-high perimeter fencing.

Interestingly, on one of the gates is a huge sign warning against sodomy, describing it as a condemned act that should be reported to the authorities immediately. A prison officer tells us this is a standard warning in Malaysian prisons and that we should not read more into it.

We are escorted down a path past a large building from which we can hear banging sounds and loud voices. That’s the kitchen, where the detainees’ meals are prepared, we’re told.

As we head towards a section where five or six separate dormitories are located, it feels a little surreal. In front of us is the pleasant sight of the forested Kinta hills and all around us, open, quiet space. If not for the barbed wire fencing, we could very well be visiting a wellness farm!

We are shepherded towards the last dorm, which is empty. The 12 detainees were nowhere to be seen – it’s evident that there is no chance of us bumping into them!

Inside the dorm, which can house 10 people, are the standard facilities that every ISA detainee is given: bed frame, mattress (very thin but clean), bed sheet, single pillow, pillow case, thick grey blanket, towel, soap (brown, non-perfumed), brandless tooth brush and tooth paste, and a set of clothes.

A small “luxury” is the attached bathrooms – certainly not the norm for prisons. There are four toilets with doors and a common shower area.

The floors are bare cement and the walls are painted a grayish white. There are three ceiling fans, a long table with benches, a wooden ledge to store things above each bed and a wall clock.

There are plenty of windows with wire mesh painted white, but they are very dusty. You can’t see outside or look in through them; the doors, which have a huge padlock, are left open throughout the day until 7pm, when detainees have to be inside.

Comfort-wise, one could do worse – but the place is definitely depressing.

While each dorm can accommodate up to 10, normally there are only six or seven people. It is not uncommon for some dorms to have only one detainee, especially if the person is a new arrival.

Terrorist Mas Selamat, for instance, shares the dorm only with his JI buddy Abdul Matin Anon Rahmat. And for security reasons, they are not allowed to mix with the other 10 ISA detainees.

The detainees follow a strict routine that begins with rising at 7am, followed by breakfast. Meals are brought to the dorm. They then attend classes according to their religious beliefs, complete assigned chores, have “play time” – badminton or football – and can move around until 7pm.

During our visit, however, the ISA detainees are confined to their dorms behind locked doors. They are very quiet, and the only visible sign that they are inside are their slippers left outside.

The last photo the media was allowed to take before the tour. The board showing the number of inmates and ISA detainees indicates that 10 of the detainees are separated from the remaining two, presumably, JI members Mas Selamat Kastari and Abdul Matin Anon Rahmat.

It’s a prison, not a resort

During the press conference after the tour, Ramli says each detainee costs the Government RM35 each day to house, clothe and feed.

To prove that the prisoners are not fed just bread and water, he shows us weekly menus, which are rotated. Dishes include tom yam, chicken and fish cooked in soy sauce; fruits are served daily.

Ramli says detainees are given more than enough to eat, and this includes rice, fish, chicken, meat and vegetables. “A person can get fat from eating the food here,” he quips.

He also says detainees are allowed to buy extra items from the canteen, such as mee goreng, for up to RM10 a week, and dry food stuff like sugar and milk costing about RM60 a month.

On detainees who go on hunger strikes as a protest against their detention, Prison deputy commissioner Thang says, contrary to public perception, fasts generally lasted for short periods of time only, and the detainees only refused to eat what was served at meal times.

“They still bought food from the canteen to eat,” he says, adding that no Kamunting detainee has ever died from a hunger strike or was hospitalised for it.

Understandably, not all accounts of Kamunting are flattering, especially if they come from the detainees. But, as a prison officer retorts to a comment that the place is bleak and depressing, “This is a prison after all, not a resort!”

The freedom of the hills seems tantalisingly close beyond the barbed wire.

Pain of isolation

Batu MP and PKR strategic director Tian Chua spent two years and two months at Kamunting (2001/2003).

For him, the 60-day interrogation period by the police prior to being sent there was the hardest part. But even so, he describes detention under the ISA as being worse than a prison sentence.

“When you are sentenced, you know for how long. Even if it’s 10 years, you can be psychologically prepared for it. But with the ISA, you don’t know for how long because the authorities can keep extending the detention indefinitely. That uncertainty is the most difficult part,” he explains when we speak to him over the phone after our tour.

While Chua (whose full name is Chua Tian Chang) agrees that the meals were decent and detainees could move in and out of the confines of their dorms, he says the isolation from society was tough to deal with.

He says during his two years in Kamunting, he was not allowed to meet other groups of detainees.

“They manage it like an isolation camp. I was placed with the Reformasi group but we were kept separate from detainees from groups with other political or ideological beliefs, like the (local militant group) KMM, the (Filipino) Moro Liberation Front, JI.”

While detainees got mainstream newspapers to read, Chua says they were full of holes, as sections and articles, particularly news on the Opposition, were cut out first.

Chua spent some time during his detention painting, which he says was a struggle to do.

“They were initially against it; they said I might swallow the paint.”

That reaction would have been a result of the prison authorities’ role and responsibilities, which they deem are very clearly spelt out: keep detainees safe and rehabilitate them.

“We do the best that we can,” says Ramli.

The media trip does not satisfy all our curiosity or answer all our questions – for one thing, we are not allowed to speak to any of the detainees and we are shown only a small part of the grounds – but it is a first tentative step towards shedding some light on a place that the public has been kept in the dark about for a very long time.

Time served

WHEN an ISA detainee is first taken to the Kamunting Detention Centre, he can appeal within 14 days, after which an Advisory Board will meet within three months to hear his appeal. During this meeting, the detainee’s lawyer can also be present.

Kamunting commandant Ramli Osman explains that the panel will subsequently review cases every six months.

Most detainees go into Kamunting under Section 8(1) of the Internal Security Act, whereby the Home Minister issues the order for the person be detained for up to two years to prevent him (or her) from acting in a manner “prejudicial to the security of the country, the maintenance of essential services or of economic life”.

After two years, the minister is allowed under Section 8(7) to extend the detention period further.

Of the 12 detainees currently in Kamunting, six (including Singaporean Jemaah Islamiah, or JI, terrorist Mas Selamat Kastari) have been there for less than two years, three (JI suspects) have been held between two and four years, and another three (also JI suspects) have been detained for over six years.

The longest an ISA detainee has been held in Kamunting was during the communist years: a suspected communist terrorist was detained for 16 years before being released!
By Admin: Should the ISA be reviewed and retained, or abolished, come rain or shine? CIAO!

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