Damages award in Malaysian Court exposes its Internal Security Act

Anil Netto
26 Oct 07

A stunning court decision awarding a huge sum in damages to an activist who was detained without trial and tortured has galvanised activists campaigning for the repeal of Malaysia’s harsh Internal Security Act (ISA).

It has also put a little shine back in the judiciary, which has been rocked by an explosive video clip apparently revealing the fixing of judical appointments and promotions by a coterie of well-connected individuals in legal, business and political circles.

High Court Judge Hishamudin Mohd Yunus awarded ex-ISA detainee Abdul Malek Hussin Ringgit 2.5 million (740,000 US dollars) in damages after he successfully sued the country’s then top police officer, Abdul Rahim Noor, another police officer and the government for false imprisonment, assault and battery.

In his Oct. 18 judgment, Yunus concluded that that the pro-reform Abdul Malek was not only detained for 57 days in 1998 but also ”subjected to a vile assault, unspeakable humiliation, and prolonged physical and mental ill-treatment”.

He noted the activist’s description of how he was stripped, blindfolded, verbally abused and then physically assaulted as officers rained blows on his face, head, body and legs, causing him to fall over several times.

In one instance, when his blindfold slipped, Abdul Malek identified one of the assailants as Abdul Rahim. The former police chief had just five days earlier assaulted and inflicted a black eye on ousted deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, who had been similarly blindfolded, sparking an international outcry.

Abdul Malek described how some liquid reeking of urine was forcibly poured into his mouth. Throughout the ordeal he was forced to remain naked. ”His penis was hit and an object pushed against his anus,” noted the judge. “He was made to stand in front of an air-conditioner and drenched with water — this treatment was done for almost an hour.”

The interrogation focused on Abdul Malek’s role in the reformasi movement and his relationship with Anwar and other opposition leaders. Abdul Malek was also asked about Anwar’s sexual activities as well as Anwar’s family members and his party leaders’ meetings with foreign leaders.

“The nature of the interrogation shows clearly its political nature and that it was being done for collateral purposes i.e. intelligence gathering for political purposes and nothing to do with genuine concern for national security.”

The Special Branch Department of the Police Force must not only be neutral but must also be seen to be neutral and non-partisan, said the judge.

Torture of any kind should be detested, he stressed. ”The practice of torturing detainees by the police force can never and should never be condoned by the courts. The court must show its utmost disapproval in no uncertain terms.”

In May 2001, the same judge had ordered the immediate release of two reformasi activists after seven weeks of ISA detention.

The latest verdict has been widely welcomed by civil society groups in Malaysia, especially those campaigning for the abolition of the ISA.

”I was so happy as all this while the government under (Prime Minister Abdullah) Badawi tried their best to hide the voice of victims of the ISA,” said Norlaila Othman, the wife of an ISA detainee and now active member of the family support committee of the Abolish ISA Movement (GMI).

Norlaila’s husband, Mat Sah Mohd Satray, who was detained in 2002 because police claim he is a Jemaah Islamiyah militant, is typical of dozens of other detainees still languishing in detention. He was denied a habeas corpus application in 2004 and is now serving a third two-year term of detention. The detainees undergo ‘rehabilitation’ at the Kamunting Detention Centre, after a gruelling initial 60-day period of police interrogation at secret locations where they have no access to lawyers.

Several detainees however have been freed over the years but the selective and apparently arbitrary nature of the releases riles up Norlaila. In the case of Mat Sah, she claims that the centre’s advisory board has repeatedly recommended his release — but her husband remains incarcerated.

”If it is really true that these people are a threat to the country, why didn’t the government bring them to court from day one of their detention?” asked Norlaila. ”Why do they selectively release these detainees in small groups — what is behind this selective release?”

The judge’s decision has come as a breath of fresh air for civil society groups and concerned Malaysians alarmed by the crisis in the judiciary in the wake of the damaging video revelations.

The clip shows a prominent lawyer on the phone in 2002 talking to what appears to be the third highest judge in the country who was promoted to chief justice not long after. The discussion centred on the fixing of judicial appointments and promotions with a business tycoon and a ruling party politician allegedly acting as intermediaries for then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.

In the wake of the revelations, some 2,000 lawyers and other concerned Malaysians walked from the Palace of Justice to the prime minister’s office to hand over two memoranda, calling for the appointment of a royal commission of inquiry and a separate commission on judicial appointments and promotions.

In an opinion poll on the Malaysian Bar’s website, 95 percent of 1,148 respondents as of today feel that Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz’s tenure should not be extended after his current term expires on Oct. 31.

Civil society groups feel it is time to abolish the ISA and revamp the judiciary. ”The ISA is used as a political tool by an oppressive regime to suppress our civil and political rights,” said P Ramakrishnan, president of the social reform group Aliran, echoing the views of many.

”The judge is a brave and honest person with a lot of integrity who sees the rot in the system clearly,” he observed. ”If you want to clean up the judiciary, it is people like Hishamudin who should be heading the judiciary.”

Such judges hold up hope for the rule of law, he added. ”Petty despots in the government and police force should take note and tremble in their boots.”

One former victim of the ISA, Tian Chua said it is time to reopen the book and revisit the victims of the ISA. Malaysians need to understand the wrongs that had been done towards these detainees, he wrote in his blog. ”The younger generation need to know their sufferings.”

As it may not be possible for all the detainees to sue the authorities, the government should establish a Commission on ISA Detentions with a function similar to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in other countries, he said. ”All victims of the ISA must be recognised and compensated.”

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