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Abuse of Power Under the ISA

By P Ramakrishnan

isa No law in all our statutes shames us as a nation or undermines our democratic system of government more than the Internal Security Act.

Shorn of the sickening justifications surrounding it, the ISA stands out as a barbaric law that goes against all our notions of what law and justice should mean. Viewed dispassionately, the ISA is a law that can have no place within the Rule of Law.

ISA Itself is Abuse of Law

Although we’re here to discuss the abuses of power under the ISA, we must first insist that there cannot be such a thing as an ‘abuse-less’ application of ISA. We must insist that the ISA is in and of itself an intolerable abuse of power.

From the very beginning of its application, the ISA has made a mockery of natural justice by denying its victims, indeed by denying all citizens, their constitutional right to due process, self-defence and liberty.

If ever the ISA had a legitimate purpose during the dark days of the communist insurgency, that purpose ended with the communists’defeat and subsequent surrender a long time ago.

If ever in the past the ISA was a necessary evil to preserve the integrity of our society, protect the security of the country, and maintain peace in our lives, today the ISA is evil, pure and simple.

Don’t fall for the propaganda fed to us by the compliant media. Don’t call ISA the instrument of order or security or peace. For once, let us heed the wisdom of Dr Mahathir Mahathir, practitioner par excellence of the ISA, and call a spade a spade.

Call the ISA simply ‘the tool of political oppression’, a legal instrument employed to stifle lawful dissent and silence legitimate criticism to perserve nothing more noble than the power and vested interests of the ruling politicians and their allies.

That and that alone explains why this obnoxious piece of legislation has been kept to this day despite ever growing demands for its unconditional repeal.

Again and again the ruling politicians have preferred to use the ISA to put down political disaffection rather than to resolve it democratically or by other non-coercive means.

They have become so used to detaining individuals without trial that they have come to love the fact that they don’t have to justify their dastardly acts.

Indeed the BN government has become so addicted to the use of ISA to defeat its rivals and critics that it would be writhing like a cold turkey suffering withdrawal pains if BN no longer had access to the dope of the ISA.

Yet supporters of the ISA have never ceased to impress upon all law-abiding citizesn that the ISA is an anti-subversion law. That is a lie.

The truth is, the ISA itself is a subversive ‘law’.

What does ISA subvert?

It subverts natural justice. Natural justice demands that any person accused of a crime should have the right to due process, and to be presumed innocent unless and until he or she is convicted in a court of law. By reason of natural justice, an investigation must come before an accusation, and that an accusation must be specifically and accurately framed in court, and that guilt must be proven beyond a shadow of doubt.

Moreover, a prosecutor accuses but does not judge. Judgement can only be passed by judges who evaluate evidence, consider arguments and uphold law. Only after the guilt of an accused has been established, and a judgement delivered can sentencing be passed. Only then can a guilty person be compelled to pay the penalty for his or her crime.

ISA subverts this entire process by which people may be legally held accountable for their actions. Under ISA, an accusation precedes an investigation which rarely means anything more than secret interrogation in an undisclosed place. Worst of all, judgement has in fact been passed when a person is accused under ISA.

In practice ISA means detention without trial, for up to sixty days at first, and subsequently up to two years at a stretch, renewable indefinitely. Detention without trial simply means that the police judge and sentence first, and only after that do they investigate.

What is the purpose of this subversion of natural justice? What is the intent behind this inversion of due process? It is merely to vindicate the actions of the police and the politicians who direct them.

What else does the ISA subvert?

The ISA subverts the checks and balances that are critical to the fair maintenance of the rule of law. Under ISA, the Minister of Home Affairs and his police make up the arresting officers, the prosecutors, the judges and the executioners, a ‘4-in-1’ system that permits no one to question what they do so long as they yell ‘national security’! No one can then counter their heavy-handed actions — not concerned citizens, not lawyers, not elected representatives, and not even courts of law.

All Kinds of Victims

The ISA confers draconian powers. The ruling government has proceeded to abuse those powers with impunity over the years. The insurgency ended years ago. The country ceased to face an external confrontation even earlier. Today our society is in no danger of being torn apart by violence.

But ISA continues to claim its victims from all walks of life and all ethnic backgrounds.

isa Made up of men and women of all ages, the ISA victims have included suspected — and let us never forget to emphasise ‘suspected’ — communists, socialists, trade unionists, peasant leaders, student activists, oppositionists, educationists, chauvinists, secessionists, environmentalists, Islamicists, NGO workers, church activists, secret society members, identity card and passport racketeers, counterfeiters, and smugglers of illegal aliens.

As you can see it takes all kinds of people to inhabit the world of the ISA.

But ISA’s present detainees and ex-detainees share this in common: In the eyes of those who uphold the just rule of law, these ISA victims have never been tried in an open court of law, let alone convicted of specific crimes against society.

It is fundamentally no concern of ours whether they think differently, see the world differently, speak, or even act differently from the rest of us. So long as they break no law, so long as they are not openly charged, fairly tried and justly convicted, we must presume them innocent.

Of course, there are people who don’t believe in these basic principles of the rule of law. There are people who want to impose harsh rule by unjust laws. Hence, the Minister of Home Affairs, his ruling politicians, and the police who do their bidding have always treated and continue to treat ISA detainees as worse than convicted common criminals.

An ISA victim is typically incarcerated when a police officer believes him or her to have ‘acted or is about to act or is likely to act in any manner prejudicial to the security of Malaysia’. It’s not as if the ISA victim is typically apprehended when he or she is on the brink of committing a crime. He or she is usually arrested at home in the early hours of the morning when the people disturbing the peace are the arresting officers!

In fact, as has been demonstrated in case after case after case, the police and their political bosses need not show any hard evidence of anyone’s guilt, and have not even bothered to adduce any evidence worth producing in court.

Except in a kangaroo court, the mere beliefs, simple suspicions and untested utterances of the police and their political bosses aren’t sufficient to hang a dog.

Under ISA, however, someone needs only to chant ‘prejudicial to the security of Malaysia’, and that is enough to deprive a man or a woman of his or her liberty for indefinite periods of time.

All this, we’re told by people who aren’t stupid, is Law. And this, we’re assured by people who occupy the highest offices of the nation, is Justice.

However, even the simplest of political simpletons realize that this claptrap about people acting, or about to act, or are likely to act ‘in a manner prejudicial to the security of Malaysia’ gives the BN a free hand to dismiss the constitutional guarantees of human rights and to violate the civil liberties of the citizens of this country.

We know the sweeping powers which the Minister of Home Affairs wields under the ISA. Hardly anyone caught in an ISA dragnet has ever found an escape route. Most have suffered prolonged incarceration.

If one scrutinizes the statements of the ruling politicians and senior police officers, one can quickly note that they don't bother to deny knowledge of the abuses of power that take place once an ISA detainee is placed in the hands of Special Branch interrogators.

They don’t bother to deny because they know abuses take place routinely, and they condone these abuses. The reasons are simple. First, the jailors and interrogators put their victims under intolerable stress as part of their ‘turnover’ techniques. Second, they hope to extract confessions that will vindicate the conviction-without-trial.

The specific ways which the Special Branch interrogators employ to reduce detainees to helplessness and indignity are well known. If it’s not too disturbing for us to be reminded of the terrible maltreatment of ISA detainees, let me refer to some accounts recorded by ex-detainees.

Jamaluddin Othman @Yeshua Jamaluddin, a Malay who converted to Christianity and subsequently became Pastor of the Fellowship of Indigenous Christians in Selangor, arrested on 27 Oct 1987

His interrogators stripped him naked and forced him to enact the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. As he was made to crawl naked on the floor, for 10 minutes, one Inspector Yusoff told several other Special Branch officers in the room, “Ini orang Melayu tak sedar diri.”

He was not allowed sleep for days at a stretch and was warned that he would not be fed unless he co-operated. The same Inspector Yusoff also threatened to “disturb” his girlfriend if he did not divulge the information they demanded. Inspector Yusoff and two other Inspectors, Zainudding and Ayub, assaulted him on several occasions, causing him to injure his back and pass out blood in his urine.

At one stage of interrogation, he was made to stand for two hours on one leg with both arms outstretched holding his slippers. A woman constable   and her young daughter were brought in to watch him while a police constable said, “Ini Melayu tak sedar diri, tukar agama, tak malu.”

Jamaluddin was also coerced to convert back to Islam.

“I got the clear impression that all my interviews with the Special Branch was for the purpose of getting me to change my religion from Christianity to Islam,” he told the Supreme Court.

Abdul Rahman Hamzah, a former Sarawak State Assemblyman and political secretary to the former Sarawak Chief Minister, arrested on 20 Sept 1988

He told of how he was so severely beaten by his interrogators that at one stage, he lost consciousness out of pain and fear.

Among other things, his interrogators throttled him until saliva dribbled down his chin and his tongue hung out, all the while hitting him in the face and head. They twisted his wrist and his body round several times before swinging him violently against the wall. He was forced to perform mock sexual acts by his sneering torturers, who also used stretched rubber bands to flick painfully at his ears, chest and nipples.

They threw ashtrays at him and beat and poked at him with a broom. He had to do endless strenuous exercises like duck-walking, leap-frogging, crawling on all fours and “swimming”on the floor. All these were aimed at destroying his self-esteem and reducing him to a helpless wreck. If he stopped from exhaustion, they kicked him.

They put a large tin over his head and hit it hard with a stick. The sound within was deafening and he suffered cuts and bruises all over his head and face. He was also given the notorious “wet treatment”. They pushed his face into a filthy squat-type toilet and flushed it repeatedly.

Abdul Rahman recalled, “The interrogators would appear to be possessed by the devil. When they interrogated me, their lips, hands and fingers would quiver. At times like this, I was frightened as I felt I was in the hands of people who had lost their reason.”

The torture only stopped after he caved in and “confessed” to having planted explosives at the Sarawak Semarak site in July the previous year.

Irene Xavier, social activist, arrested on 31 Oct 1987.

She was abused, insulted, threatened and bullied like an animal.

“I shall always remember how on the ninth day of my detention, I was beaten with a stick. It was the most humiliating experience in my life. I was forced to stand there while an inspector of the Special Branch beat me with a stick - to remind me that they were not going to treat women more leniently. I was truly in a state of shock.

Chow Chee Keong, social activist, arrested on 28 Oct 1987.

He was questioned for nearly 13 hours, coerced to admit to being a communist Marxist.

An interrogator tried to burn his genitals with a burning rolled-up piece of newspaper. They pulled his hair, stepped hard on his fingers and toes with their booted feet and whacked his back with rolled-up bundles of newspapers.

They also enjoyed kicking his chair from under him, causing him to topple to the floor and splashing him with cold water before standing his drenched body in front of the air-conditioner. He was made to do so many push-ups that he could hardly lift his arms to feed himself.

Dr Munawar Ahmad Anees, Anwar's former speech writer, arrested on 14 Sept 1998.

"They screamed and screamed and screamed, in my ears, at my face, at me, again and again, over and over asking me to say 'yes' until I gave in and broke down saying yes, yes."

The way Munawar raved and raged against a legal counsel who had turned up to represent him, exposed the cruel and chilling terror of torture and trauma he had been subjected to.

In his affidavit, he summed up his horrendous experiece:

"They stripped me of all self-respect; they degraded me and broke down my will and resistence; they threatened me and my family; they frightened me; they brainwashed me to the entent that I ended up in court on 19 Sept a shivering shell of a man willing to do anything to stop the destruction of my being."

If all the above abuses and more have been revealed to the public, why should anyone think that the senior police officers and their political bosses don’t know the extent of what goes on in the ISA’s Chamber of Horrors?

There is another reason why they don’t deny the routine abuses of power under ISA. They want the maltreatment of detainees to deter other people from standing up for their rights as citizens and from being counted among those who openly criticise wrongdoings in public and high places.

Consequently, the threat of ISA underlies the pervasive culture of fear we all live with. That’s how ISA creates BN’s ‘silenced majority’! The culture of fear is never more obvious than when the ruling politicians feel threatened.

syed For instance, every time UMNO faced a crisis, people quaked at the prospect of an ISA witchhunt. In the 1970s, Tun Abdul Razak aides ended up as ISA detainees. (Ironically a ‘suspected communist’ named Mahathir was saved from ISA’s clutches by the honourable conduct of an ISA detainee, Syed Husin Ali (left).) In 1987 Operasi Lalang had few UMNO culprits but overwhelmingly non-UMNO victims. When Al Arqam leaders boasted they would take on UMNO in the elections of the 1990s, they, too, ended up being the guests of the ISA.

Most recently, after UMNO’s severe loss of credibility from the Anwar Ibrahim affair, ‘Reformasi activists’ have been detained without trial. And with PAS’s growing influence, ‘Islamic militants’ have been likewise imprisoned.

However, the political awakening that produced reformasi also produced an unprecedented opposition to ISA. Even the courts have lately ruled that ISA’s use was unconstitutional.

In short, the ISA had always been a weapon used to terrorize the citizens of this country.

ISA and September 11

attackSeptember 11, 2001, some argue, has changed everything. The terrible attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center buildings, they think, indicate the need for harsh laws to preempt terrorism.

No one is happier in these circumstances than Mahathir & Co. who now want to export ISA as an anti-terrorist weapon! They want us to imagine, and they want the world to believe that had there been an ISA in the USA, there wouldn’t have been September 11.

Mahathir & Co. are, however, being two-faced as usual in defending their continued use of ISA. Even they don’t buy their own arguments.

On the one hand, they want to sell the ISA’s preemptive detention without trial. What is their motive if not to get the Bush administration to stop cold-shouldering Mahathir over the Anwar affair?

On the other hand, they argue that USA shouldn’t attack Afghanistan ‘without evidence’. What is their agenda here other than to associate with Muslim demands that terrorism be fought not with violence but with justice?

Let us ask: Can one truly reconcile ISA with justice? Or are Mahathir & Co. simply running with the hares and hunting with the hounds?

Let our de facto law minister, Rais Yatim answer. He described Bush’s draconian ‘Save America Act 2001’ as being ‘controversial and extreme’. He should know, he having been ISA’s critic when in Team B, and now ISA’s apologist in Mahathir’s Team. He should know that nothing that the USA passes in alarm, fear and anger can retroactively justify what the BN government has cold-bloodedly done over many, many years.

In these times of confusion, the global responses to terror can take many different paths, including severe curbs on civil liberties and human rights in USA itself. But we, who have nothing to do with terror and terrorism, musn’t be misled when the BN government recycles old threats and invents new dangers.

With the rest of the world who stand for peace and justice, we deplore what happened on September 11. But in doing so, let us not forget that the rest of the world stood with us in deploring the use of the ISA ... long before September 11.

The above talk was given at the Festival Of Rights organised by Bar Council, Hakam & Sisters In Islam on 8 Dec 2001

Chamber of Horrors

The initial 60 days of detention are the most harrowing both for the detainee and his or her family. Both sides are in the dark as to where they are detained; both are kept on tenterhooks regarding family visits.

The place of detention is referred to as Malaysia’s own Chamber of Horrors. Here the detainees are at the mercy of the Special Branch tactics.

Evidence gathered so far indicates that detainees were generally subjected to prolonged interrogation in deliberately over-cooled rooms, deprived of sleep for extended periods of time and threatened with indefinite detention without trial. An Amnesty International report released on Dec 20, 1988 pointed out that interrogators humiliated and terrorised several detainees during interrogation with mock sexual assaults. Uncooperative detainees were beaten up, punched and slapped.

Detainees were mostly held incommunicado during the 60-day period. In many cases, their families had no notion where they were being held. Others were given limited access to families, relatives, and defence counsel. One detainee has described the so-called investigation period as “a licenced period for the Special Branch to terrorise and torture.” The systematic use of physical and mental torture in the course of interrogations violates not only international legal standards, but the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the most important documents of the 20th century.

Article 5 of the Declaration lays down very clearly that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Yet, witness what had taken place in the Chamber of Horrors.

Now tell us what you think. E-mail us.