In Malaysia, the terms ISA and Kamunting go together. If you are arrested under the ISA, you are often first brought to Bukit Aman (ironically, Hill of Peace in Malay) headquarters of the federal police, or the Police Remand Centre for interrogation, and then onwards to Kamunting.
The latest to hit the news with his transfer from Bukit Aman to Kamunting is blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin. He sadly joined the five leaders of the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) who have been detained there since December last year.
That 2004 visit was the first, and only time since, that journalists were allowed into the camp to see its living conditions. It was part of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s liberalisation policy – he had just won big-time in the March 2004 (yes, March 2004, not 2008) general elections and the government was full of confidence and promise. It had won 90 per cent of seats in Parliament – a record.
The visit was hosted by then-Deputy Home Minister Noh Omar who wanted to show journalists that the government had nothing to hide, despite the noise made then by the opposition, rights groups and families of the detainees that horrible things are happening inside.
I shivered as I looked around this Malaysian Alcatraz, with its trimmed lawns. This was a place where Clint Eastwood could escape from. The 114ha camp (about 140 football fields) had double security checks before anyone is allowed in or out. And if one could cut through one set of fence, there is another layer of fence to deal with.
Even if one could find wire cutters, and then be given the time to cut through the fences, there were all the dogs, lights and guards on watch towers to stop any escape attempt. Beyond the fences were just wide stretches of open fields. I don’t remember anyone ever escaping from the prison.
The place reminded me of the song Hotel California – you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave. Unless the government wants you to.
According to details published by rights group Aliran in Penang on Sept 19, the big camp has 64 detainees now. Raja Petra makes it 65. Except when they were put in solitary confinement, the detainees I saw were placed in single-storey barracks that they share with others.
There was no privacy, really, and there must have been worries among inmates about saying the wrong things to another person that could prolong one’s stay in the dreaded camp.
You see, although people like Raja Petra have been given a two-year sentence, the government after seeing recommendations from a review board, could in theory extend the incarceration for a very long time.
According to Penang-based rights non-governmental organisation Aliran, the longest prisoners now inside Kamunting – businessmen Yazid Sufaat and Suhaimi Mokhtar – have been there for nearly seven years.
Both were detained for alleged links to the Jemaah Islamiyah terror group since December 2001. In that camp in 2004, we were taken to meet two groups of people, separately, from two of the barracks. Noh’s aides had told the reporters – you are only observers.
“You can watch the deputy minister talk to the detainees, but if you try to talk to any of them, you would be thrown out right away. And please, do not tape any of the conversation.” We had to leave our tape recorders and mobile phones at the front counter.
Credit had to be given to Datuk Noh on that day, because although he was civil to the detainees, he was bombarded with questions on why they were still inside, their worries about their families, and their many claims of innocence.
A couple of the detainees cried spontaneously when talking about the plight of their families outside. Many of the inmates then were being detained due to alleged links to the JI, while others were alleged gangsters from the Borneo states.
One of the detainees, seeing the reporters, accused the deputy minister of using the visit to “seek political mileage”.
“Don’t use us as political tools and visit us as if we are animals in the zoo,” he said.
There were no famous faces inside then, except for Nik Abduh Nik Aziz, a son of the Parti Islam SeMalaysia spiritual leader, Nik Aziz Nik Mat. He was held due to alleged links with JI, and did not say anything at all. Nik Abduh has since been released.
As for Raja Petra, he is not the most famous person to have passed through those infamous gates. Those gates are the only ones that the public can see on a drive there, unless he or she is allowed inside to see a family member. And even inside, unlike the journalists in 2004, most family members are restricted to a meeting area.
In Malaysia, being jailed under the ISA has, rightly or wrongly, come be to taken as a badge of honour. It is as if the time spent under detention shows that ‘My struggle was so intense that to stop me, the government had to put me behind bars without trial’.
Among those who have been detained under the ISA are opposition veterans Lim Kit Siang and Karpal Singh, Parti Keadilan Rakyat chiefs Anwar Ibrahim and Azmin Ali, PAS vice president Mohamed Sabu, former deputy minister Ibrahim Ali, current defacto Islamic Affairs Minister Zahim Hamidi, rights campaigner Irene Xavier and academic Chandra Muzaffar.
The list is far from comprehensive as it includes lawyers, Chinese educationists, social activists and yet more politicians. A group of ex-inmates are fighting to get the ISA laws totally dropped. They are known by their Malay acronym GAM, or Gerakan Mansukan ISA (Abolish ISA Movement).
After the arrests of Raja Petra, opposition MP Teresa Kok and Sin Chew Daily journalist Tan Hoon Cheng, rights groups and NGOs have again banded together to the ISA repealed. It is not clear what will happen next, but most of those released from the camp were not cowed, but became fierce fighters against the security laws. – Reme Ahmad