Singapore’s Abu Ghraib – and worse

If you are like many people across the world and the United States, you would be sickened by the torture of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison. But for us Singaporeans there is something even more repulsive at home: torture in our own prisons of our own people by the PAP Government.

But while the American Government has called for inquiries and has prosecuted the soldiers responsible, the PAP continues to refuse any commission to look into the cases of torture of Singaporeans carried out by ISD agents. Another difference is that while the media in the US keeps Americans informed of the abuses in Abu Ghraib as well as the action taken against the perpetrators, the media in Singapore continues to cover up the situation in our detention centres.

Below is the first instalment of excerpts of a report written by an Amnesty International mission that had visited Singapore in 1978. The next instalments will detail more torture by the ISD, including the beating and ill-treatment of Singaporeans detained in 1987.

This Amnesty International report will be made available to the US State Department to urge it to include Singapore in the list of Southeast Asian countries that it cites for human rights violations.

Since May 1970 almost all long-term political prisoners in the Republic of Singapore have been detained in the Moon Crescent Detention Centre, a purpose-built political wing of Changi Prison, the main prison in the country. As we have noted political detainees are frequently kept in solitary confinement for anything up to six months, either at Whitley Road Holding Centre or at other undisclosed Special Branch Holding Centre. Once a detainee is served with a detention order under Section 8 of the International Security Act, he is almost invariably transferred to the Moon Crescent Detention Centre.

The number of detainees currently held at Moon Crescent is at least 50. They are kept in isolated units of three to six men with no contact between the various units. Each small block of cell is surrounded by high walls, and exercise yards are very small. The cells themselves are also small, with very poor ventilation. There is no window. The cell door, which consists of bars only, opens into a corridor which is walled to the ceilings. Hence there is no through ventilation. Detainees are not allowed to have watches, clocks or calendars in their cells.

Prisoners are allowed to receive visitors once a week and to send one letter a week. Each prison visit lasts half-an-hour. Detainee and relative are separated from each other by a thick soundproof glass partition and can communicate with each other only by telephone. Prison warders are present throughout the visit and monitor the conversation. Visits are terminated abruptly if any mention is made of prison conditions. Prisoners are allowed out of their cells only between the hours of 6.30 to 10 am, 12 noon to 2 pm and 4 pm to 7 pm. Thus prisoners are confined in their cells for 15 hours a day. Food is poor and only a limited supplement is allowed from families.

Prisoners at Moon Crescent Detention Centre have extremely limited access to lawyers. In part this is a reflection of the harassment of those members of the Singapore Bar who have been courageous enough to defend political prisoners, but it is also due to restrictions in force at Moon Crescent. The lawyer usually has to state specifically the purpose of his visit, which is always under strict supervision by the Special Branch. Not even a passing mention of conditions of detention is allowed. Frequently requests by prisoners for visits by their lawyers are turned down or ignored by the prison authorities, and letters sent by detainees to their legal advisers often never reach their destination.

From time to time prisoners at Moon Crescent Detention Centre have protested over their conditions. In particular, two long hunger strikes took place in 1971 and 1978. In both cases, the prison authorities responded with considerable brutality. In addition, the prisoners have traditionally staged a 36-hour hunger strike on 2 February every year to commemorate the anniversary if Operation Cold Store on 2 February 1963, when 133 persons were arrested in one sweep by Security authorities. Two of the prisoners arrested on that day Dr Poh Soo Kai and Ho Piao are still detained at Moon Crescent.

The hunger strike in 1970-71 arose over an attempt by the authorities to force the prisoners to do work, which the prisoners themselves rejected categorically on the grounds that they were political detainees. The hunger strike started on 16 December 1970. After it had been in progress for five days, the authorities started force-feeding a number of the detainees, including female prisoners. Several of the prisoners were also brutally beaten during this period. Several of the female detainees at Moon Crescent at the time made sworn complaints of ill-treatment afterwards before a magistrate. Those who made complaints were law Leh Moi, Sim Teong Hiok, Wong Kui Inn, Toh Siew im, Liu Ah Kiang, Lee Yuen Tueng, Goh Peng Hua and Ng Noi Kee.

There have also been occasions when prisoners have staged hunger strikes individually against injustices inflicted on them. For example, in June 1972 Lim Hock Koon, younger brother of Dr Lim Hock Siew, staged a hunger strike in protest against a confession allegedly made by him which the Government placed in several newspapers without his compliance.

In the last two years, conditions at moon Crescent have deteriorated considerably and the prisoners have staged several protests against the authorities actions. Amnesty International has long been gravely concerned about the inadequacy of medical conditions at Moon Crescent and this concern has been increased by the death in March 1978 of Chan Hock Hua, a long-term prisoner at Moon Crescent, only 20 days after his release from prison. Chan Hock Hua was arrested on 17 February 1971. He was initially detained at Whitley Road Holding Centre but later transferred to the top floor of the Central Police Station where he was kept under solitary confinement for two years. During long periods of interrogation at these two interrogation centre, he was frequently beaten and several times immersed in cold water. As a result of this treatment, he also complained in later years of severe rheumatism. In 1972 he was transferred to Moon Crescent.

During the next four years and more at Moon Crescent, Chan Hock Hua suffered frequently from ill health, so much as that other prisoners complained about the inadequacy of the medical treatment he was receiving and urged the authorities to consider his early release on humanitarian grounds. In early 1978 his health deteriorated rapidly and caused considerable unease amongst his fellow-prisoners. As a result of their protests, on 13 March 1978, Chan Hock Hua was transferred from Moon Crescent to Singapore Central Hospital. According to the doctors there, Chan was suffering from carcinoma hepatitis (cancer of the liver), and a few days later he was discharged from hospital because of the incurable nature of his illness. On 25 March Chans family took him to a private hospital, but the following day he dies from his illness.

The tragic case of Chan Hock Hua illustrates in a striking way the serious shortcomings of medical attention at Moon Crescent. Moreover, Chans family have repeatedly alleged that he was suffering in fact nor from cancer of the live but from a lacerated liver caused by beatings he had received in the early years of his detention.

The death of Chan Hock Hua caused understandable unrest amongst the detainees at Moon Crescent and led to a hunger strike on 30 March 1978. Some weeks later, in May, the prison authorities announced new restrictions that further limited prison rations and restricted what prisoners could receive from their families. The official reason given by the authorities for restricting the supply of food that could be brought by relatives was that the measure was being implemented to prevent jealousies among detainees by equalizing the amount allowed in for each detainee. The prison authorities had also taken to closing up the little openings at the top of the walls of the tiny cells. The reason given for blocking up this minimal source of light and ventilation was that they wanted to prevent rain from getting in through these openings. These measures rendered conditions at Moon Crescent even more oppressive. The prisoners protested at these new measures by staging sit-down protests after each family visit. Two one-day hunger strikes also took place on 6 June and 17 July to emphasize the prisoners discontent that the authorities were not even willing to discuss the new regulations. As a punishment for these strikes, family visits were curtailed completely and several prisoners moved to the punishment wing of Changi Prison. The punishment wing at Changi Prison is above the prison bakery and ovens, and groups pf prisoners from Moon Crescent were kept in solitary confinement cells here for up to five days at a time. Aming the detainees transferred there were Lee Tse Tong (detained since October 1963) and Pang Hee fat. Two prisoners, Chai Chong and Chow Tien Pao, were beaten by three warders, whom they identified as Mak Tse wah, C P Lim, and Tan Kah Beng.

In August 1978, a dozen prisoners from Moon Crescent were transferred to Whitley Road Holding Centre, where they were placed in solitary confinement and interrogated over long periods. Among those transferred were Chng Min Oh, Ho Koon Kiang, Cheng Nui, Chong Ming Jee and Chieu Tuan Sin. A number of them were also beaten. Among those assaulted were Chng Min Oh, Ho koon Kiang, Chong Ming Jee and a female detained, Cheng Nui. Two fo the detainees, Chng Min Oh and Ho Kiin Kiang, began a hunger strike which resulted in their being hospitalized after 20 days and force-fed.

The prisoners transferred to Whitley Road Holding Centre were asked to sign statements, in return for which they were promised conditional release, both Chng Mon Oh and Ho Koon Kiang repeatedly refused to do this. During interrogation they were beaten and Chng Min Oh has a bowl of urine poured over his head. Both men were kept in solitary confinement and were not allowed to leave their cells for long periods in air-conditioned rooms. Ts was as a result of this treatment that they began heir hunger strike.

For over a month during the hunger strike, the families of Chng Min Oh and Ho Koon Kiang were denied visits. Chng Min Oh has experienced severe difficulties with hearing as a result of beating he received at Whitley Road and was later transferred to Changi Prison Hospital. Chng Min Oh and Ho Koon Kian were transferred back to Moon Crescent Detention Centre only on 21 November 1978.

The inadequacy of medical conditions at moon Crescent in 1978 was further highlighted by the case of Lim Hock Koon. The younger brother of Dr Lim Hock Siew (detained since 1963), Lim Hock Koon has been detained without trial since 1971 under the ISA. In May 1978, he was found to be suffering from chronic high blood pressure. Six months later Lim Hock Koon suffered a stroke, resulting in partial paralysis of his body. He has since been transferred to Changi Prison Hospital. Request by his family that he be moved to an outside hospital for adequate treatment have been ignored. Moreover, Amnesty International has received information that even in hospital Lim Hock Koon has been subjected to renewed interrogation and pressure to consider making a confession and recantation of his political views.

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